THE CAFE IN THE SWAMP

The next post will be on or before Sunday 7th January

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1996

Once again like Lord (aged 45), Lady (aged 41) and Princess Muck (all of 7) we had two foreign holidays in 1996, and visited Greece and Portugal in May and August. We spent a majestic 3 weeks in taking buses round the remoter parts of North Portugal, but scrimped relatively speaking by taking a low season bargain package to the Isle of Thassos in the North Aegean. Thassos is famous for its handsome pine forests but is so swamped by tourism, you can only find the authentic pre-boom parts of the island with a hire car. We relied on buses and the nearest we got to anything like a real village was a little place called Thelogos, where the only shop was still run by an old man who had no electronic till and who was touchingly courteous to the foreigners. The most dramatic event was on our day of arrival, when a thunderstorm broke out the like of which I have never seen nor heard before nor since (the Thassos folk said likewise). It was so unbelievably deafening and protracted, it was truly frightening and the downpour was such that our bedroom flooded from the veranda and we had to put all the towels down to soak it up. Otherwise the general flavour of the package island was apparent, when, sitting on the numerous buses that circled the resorts, one listened perforce to blameless elderly English couples, all of them wearing floppy white sunhats (only Brits wear those, no one else) making such comments as Ooh, there’s a nice little goat…Ooh and look, there’s another little goat, Derek…

North Portugal had none of that, and the tourist presence even in high season was almost entirely Portuguese. We turned up in beautiful Viana do Castelo on the Costa Verde where there was a massive folk festival, and it was a miracle we found anywhere to stay. Late at night after a 12-hour bus ride from the Algarve, we managed to locate a central pensao run by a wily widowed or more likely divorced lady in her late 60s, and she earnestly impressed on us our great fortune in finding her accommodation, fulsomely hinting that she was our charitable saviour, the poignant sight of our weary little daughter having clinched the matter. The room price she proposed was high but not extortionate, and over the next few days she showed a rather excessive and saccharine show of fondness for Ione. She even gave her an ornate beautifully dressed dolly which in the shops would have cost a pile of escudos (1996 was pre-euro) but the price for all this worrying munificence was that when we left she claimed we had agreed on twice as much as I was giving her. I had just enough Portuguese to scornfully argue the toss and refuse to pay her another escudo, but by way of obscure rebuke her tiny and crazy little puppy who was Ione’s best friend for the stay, decided to bite me painfully on the belly button of all places.

Two years earlier when we were bussing it round the Alentejo and Ione was only 5, she had been more than content with the town playgrounds for her daily diversion. Turned 7, she craved considerably more and she particularly craved a beach, the problem being that much of our 3 weeks was spent well inland. By a fluke that pleased her inordinately, there are a few little towns in the north that have rivers so wide and so shallow and so safe, they can also function as beaches and indeed are so named as a river beach or praia fluvial. Once Ione discovered the praia fluvial of Ponte de Lima, that wonderful place where the local vinho verde (‘green’ wine which can be either white or red) is served like draught beer from a huge barrel, she had no wish to trail round the massive weekly market, and believe me a Portuguese market outdoes all rivals (I am talking about miracles like 50 pairs of men’s socks for 5 euros or 10 cents per pair or 5 cents per foot…) Instead she spent much of the day in the Lima river and Annie and I did split supervision shifts, while the other went sightseeing. The business became altogether more surreal as we continued our epic journey round the north, and Ione demanded yet another praia fluvial where none was to be had. She did not understand why they weren’t universally available and it got to the stage where in lovely and remote Chaves (it means ‘keys’) just beyond the rampant cowboy town of Montalegre and close to the extraordinary troglodyte village of Pitoes das Junias, Annie was obliged to take her little daughter to the raucous town swimming pool in a roasting Portuguese August.

Until we took our excursion to Vidago that is, a small town famous for the bottled spring water consumed all over Portugal. It had nothing else to offer, alas, the market had been yesterday for example, and we were about to bus it back immediately to Chaves, when I suddenly noticed an obscure little sign saying Praia de Vidago…or Vidago Beach. Investigation of our little map, indicated there was a river parallel with a minor road, and at one site on an obscure and random bend, sure enough there was Vidago Beach. Instead of sensibly swapping tactical notes with Annie, I was fool enough to show Ione the map, and immediately and being a visionary optimist, she imagined it as the splendidly wide and majestic Lima with knobs on, so that in boiling heat we traipsed the couple of miles surveying a river which was in fact a sluggish and severely unappetising stream. Nevertheless, and just like Ione, I somehow expected that at the designated Praia Vidago, a glorious beach would swell into something like the Tiber crossed with the Irrawaddy, replete with gorgeous and hallucinatory sand, plus a hauntingly lovely café with the best bica espressos and cervejas this side of the Spanish border…

At last, by a kind of copse or spinney (what is the difference, one asks oneself?) we noted a café lurking adjacent to the river. The café called itself the Praia, so patently this could only be the site of the fabled beach. The river at its confluence with the café, which was a kind of humble shack straight out of a sultry novel from the Deep South, though minus the crocodiles…the river had become completely stagnant and worse still was covered in enormous quantities of bright green algae. There were about three yards of sand aka The Beach, between the café tables and the river, but had Ione wished to paddle there, she would have been obliged to paddle her way through clotted algae. Not even fearless Ione fancied that. Instead she dug with her bucket and spade for a while and I looked wonderingly at the café proprietor who was a pleasant moustachioed middle-aged man running his café in a kind of infernal swamp which presumably when he had bought the place a decade ago, had been a going concern and an extremely nice Sunday out. I don’t often feel moved by the pathos of a failing business but was that day, and so much so that I ordered twice as many coffees and beers as I wanted, and I wished somehow I could have waved a wand and changed this place back to what it once had been.

 

What I Read In 1996 (from my 1996 Diary)

 The Third Truth by Leonid Borodin (1938-2011. Novelist who was an Orthodox Christian and Soviet dissident)

Little Mountain by Elias Khoury (born 1948. Eminent Lebanese author and public figure)

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga (born 1951.  He translates his prizewinning work from Euskara (Basque) into Spanish, and the title of this excellent novel means The Things of Obaba.)

The Crippled Dancer by T Obinkaram Echewa (Nigerian writer born 1940, published in the old Heinemann African writer series)

The Years by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941. If you haven’t seen the film version of Mrs Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Kitchen, you are in for a remarkable treat)

Pubis Angelical by Manuel Puig (Argentinian writer, 1932-1990. Famous for 1976 novel Kiss of a Spider Woman filmed in 1985 with William Hurt and Raul Julia)

Carmelite Nuns by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948. Devout Roman Catholic with monarchist leanings. Originally this was an aborted screenplay about the 1794 history of the Compiegne martyrs. Turned into a film in 1960)

Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Against the Stream by James Hanley (stylistically innovative Liverpudlian author of the notorious Boy prosecuted for obscenity in the 1930s. He is brother of the fine novelist Gerald Hanley)

Redhill Rococo by Shena Mackay (Scottish author born 1944. I realise that though no great fan of hers I have read a great deal of of her stuff. Very odd)

Farewell Companions by James Plunkett (1920-2003. Author of famous 1969 Strumpet City, a searing and excellent novel about Dublin politics and poverty up until the lockout of 1913. He was also a Telefis Eireann producer in the 1960s)

The Circus Animals by James Plunkett (1990 novel. His short stories are also very good, and are published by Poolbeg Press)

Landscape Painted With Tea by Milorad Pavic (1929-2009. Innovative Belgrade novelist whose works like those of Georges Perec used dictionaries, puzzles etc. Best known for Dictionary of the Khazars)

The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini (born 1936 and winner of Formentor Prize for 1963 The Age of Discontent. She was the daughter of a Sicilian princess, and spent time in a WW2 prison camp, after her parents went to Japan to escape Italian Fascism. Maraini is a terrific and intelligent writer who should be better known in the UK)

The Reprieve by Jean-Paul Sartre (part of the Roads to Freedom trilogy)

The Bachelors by Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972. Astringent and brilliant author expelled from school for a homosexual relationship, then decorated for bravery after WW1. He was badly beaten up in the street in 1968 and made blind in one eye. He committed suicide with first cyanide and then a single gunshot)

The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono (1895-1970. One of my favourite writers from Manosque, Provence. I enjoyed the film adaptation of this novel with Depardieu even though it got a scurvy and absurd 2 stars in the Radio Times listings)

Chaos and Night by Henry de Montherlant

Abbe Mouret’s Transgression by Emile Z ola

The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad

Loving Without Tears by Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell, all of her works available in Virago Classics. Another of my favourite writers, with immense comic acuity when it comes to characterisation)

Misericordia by Benito Perez Galdos (prolific 19thC Spanish author whose work was filmed by Luis Bunuel)

The Mandarin by Eca de Queiroz (the great Portuguese author had a strong line in anticlericalism both here and in The Sin of Father Amaro, once serialised by Spanish TV)

Dust Raising by Christopher Burns (very gifted Cumbrian author whose 1986 debut was Snakewrist)

Guilty River by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889. Lifelong friend and collaborator with Charles Dickens and author of The Moonstone. It was a school bully who forced him to tell stories who set the ball rolling so to speak)

Therese by Francois Mauriac (the previous year I read 7 of his novels in a row. Enough said)

On The Contrary by Andre Brink (1935-2015. Like Breyten  Breytenbach, one of the die Sestigers or Sixtyers among South African authors, who chose to write in Afrikaans in order to challenge apartheid)

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester (very funny and very well written novel by a London Review of Books luminary)

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (Danish writer born 1957. This 1992 novel was an international success and was filmed by Bille August. He published nothing between 1996 and 2006 when his new novel The Quiet Girl was accused of being too complex and too postmodern)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Virtuoso allegory about totalitarianism by the great Albanian writer who I interviewed the following year in Paris)

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie (born 1947. I enjoyed this very much, and more so than Midnight’s Children)

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990. 1936 novel which was filmed for TV in 1983 with Joanna Lumley. Her first book the 1927 Dusty Answer depicted openly gay relationships at Cambridge and was a succes de scandale. Her actor sister Beatrix also published some fine fiction)

Unholy Ghosts by Richard Zimler (born 1956. Early novel by American writer living Portugal whose 1996 Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was London’s best-selling paperback at one stage)

Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France (1844-1924. Nobel winner 1921 and an outspoken socialist, atheist and supporter of the Russian revolution. Little read nowadays but George Orwell declared him to be a highly readable writer)

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (I seem to remember this important novel starts with 3 pompous curates)

The Smell of Hay by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. Italian author of Jewish extraction famous for his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi Continis which was made into a 1970 film)

The Magic of a Line by Laura Knight (1877-1970. 1965 work by eminent English artist who painted the Nuremberg trials)

Prague Tales by Jan Neruda (1844- 1891. Leader of Czech Realism school, novelist, poet and dramatist who was declared a Traitor to the Nation in 1871)

Mazurka for Two Dead Men by Jose Cela (I reread this novel by the Nobel winner recently and thought it awful)

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom (innovative Dutch writer born 1933. His surname means Nut-tree)

The Year of the Flood by Eduardo Mendoza (leading Catalan writer born 1943)

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1875-1955. Nobel winner 1929 and this is his 1901 novel. During WW2 he lived in exile in the USA)

The Lone Man by Bernardo Atxaga(Spain’s best known Basque writer. His name is pronounced At-chagger)

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THE LONE SWAN

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1995

Merry Christmas to all. The next post will be on or before New Year’s Eve

Over the years, disdaining sensible and we felt immoderately senile priorities like decorating the house or saving for a rainy day (it rained all the bloody time in Cumbria anyway) our pattern was to take two holidays a year, alternating Portugal with Greek islands as a rule. In May 1995 we went to Kefalonia for a fortnight, or rather we spent a week there on the Ionian island made famous by Louis de Berniere (born 1954) and his controversial novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) and a week on its much smaller neighbour, Ithaka. Once on Ithaka we wished we had stayed there all the time, as in addition to its smallness and beauty it had nil package tour presence, and aside from the glitzy yachties’ resort of Kioni, felt infinitely more Greek. Kefalonia is an amiable enough island but it was hard to find quiet beaches and the only one we did unearth via public transport was Assos (the same name as Greece’s favourite cigarette). That likeable tranquility was soon dramatically rent by the screams of a young Englishwoman in the café where we were sitting, for she had innocently leant back in her chair and squashed a stray cat with her chair. In response the cat had sunk its nails into her bare thighs and they were a bloody mess, so much so that even the heedless Greeks said she should go and see a doctor. Her husband drove them up to Fiskardo where she got some tetanus jabs, and they swiped his credit card to an impressive extent, they told us later, when we bumped into them in the island’s capital, Argostoli.

Nearly all the buildings in Argostoli are post-1953, as that year there was a catastrophic earthquake which demolished virtually everything. It is a big town and despite the breeze block architecture, has a bustling charm, offset only that day when a young supermarket assistant tried to impudently short-change me by a massive amount. When I corrected her, instead of apologising, she looked at me with loathing for finding her out, as if it was not her fault but mine, and I have noticed this quaint inversion a few times when acquisitive Greeks get into the ludicrously blatant pulling of fast ones. By contrast the capital of Ithaka is Vathi, an exquisitely compact little port which could pass for Italian, but in May that year tourists were so few all the domatia were closed. We managed to find a dingy central place run by an extortionate old lady with nil English but a furious temper, and her foghorn ranting followed us for a good five minutes as we shot off in terror. In the end we found some excellent rooms a twenty-minute walk out of town, and the young proprietress was so kind and her domatia so empty, she gave us two rooms for the price of one, one for Annie and me, and the other for Ione who was almost 6. Ione, who had never known en suite accommodation hitherto, opened her massive fridge and promptly filled it with 6 lollipops and nothing else. Then she stepped outside into the handsome gardens and immediately fell in love…

I don’t mean she fell in love with the ambient plants and shrubs, but that she fell in love with Spiros aged 10, the son and only child of the domatia. Personally, I couldn’t see what she saw in him, as he had round rimless specs, rarely smiled, and looked rather like Professor Branestawm (Prof Mialoberdevemeno in Greek?). Nonetheless she was powerfully smitten, and disclosed that she would like to give him one of her refrigerated lollipops, but felt too shy. Gingerly I offered to do the brokering for her, but as expected she snapped at me for even suggesting such a recklessly embarrassing scenario.  By way of distraction we took her to a lovely beach a half hour’s walk away, where I was feeling a limitless amount of eesikhia or ineffably transcendent tranquility peculiar to remote Greek islands, when I noticed that my favourite white chinos had become hideously flecked with melted tar. Annie and Ione hadn’t sat in any tar of course, nor when we returned to Vathi were they pursued by some aggressive Ithacan geese as I was. My wife and daughter were convulsed with merriment as three of the buggers chased after me, just as if I had done them some gratuitous personal injury. Fittingly, I scraped at my dim memory of the Odyssey and wondered if those geese were, once the chips were down, some kind of malicious sirens or other antagonistic minor celebrities from the great epic.

Five months later we were in the Portuguese Alentejo for a week, where we had the gleamingly white marble town of Estremoz for our incomparable base. It was a lovely hot October and we celebrated my 45th birthday there, and also took a bus excursion to stunningly beautiful Vila Vicosa, renowned for its Paco Ducal = Ducal Palace. We were the only visitors that day, and a young custodian who looked rather like an older version of speccy Spiros from Ithaca, gave us a special tour of the massive place in flawless English. Later, in a nearby café, Ione purchased a colossal quantity of Portuguese chewing gum, so that my totemic memory of that exquisite town tends rather more towards my daughter’s 50 chiclets of gum than it does towards one of the most beautiful ancient buildings in the world.

Animals feature inescapably whenever you visit a country poorer than yours, meaning because no one owns them, they have an inevitable public presence. Greece’s ownerless stray cats are legendary (sundry Athens print firms make a small fortune out of island kitten calendars) and it is equally true to say that no one owned the beautiful swan which was the solitary occupant of the tiny pond in Estremoz’s public park. Just as she had fallen in love with bespectacled Spiros that year, Ione instantly fell in love with that handsome solo swan and spent her time feeding it with bread, and then, disdaining what she never ate herself, decided to nourish it with expensive ovos moles cake…

15 years later, which is to say the year after her Mum died of secondary cancer, Ione and I went back to Estremoz, having already celebrated my 60th birthday in nearby Beja, the majestic and poignant capital of the Lower Alentejo. We found the tiny pool in the public park easily enough, but there was no swan eating scraps of bread there any longer, though idiot that I was I thought that things like swans lasted for ever, as so indeed I had felt about my lovely wife of thirty years. At once I was seized with an aching rictus of mourning for both that little Alentejo swan, and for my dead and buried wife, and the two of them without any effort rose up before me and fused in the air, and became the same indivisible and of course incalculable regret.

What I Read In 1995 (from  my 1995 Diary)

Violent Land by Jorge Amado (1912-2001. Brazil’s best-known novelist. Aside that is from the great Machado de Assis, 1839-1908, who was much admired by Jose Saramago and by Woody Allen)

The Little Town Where Time Stood Still & Cutting it Short by Bohumil Hrabal (two novellas by the Czech comic fabulist born 1914)

Night’s Lies by Gesualdo Bufalino (1920-1996. Sicilian author encouraged by his eminent friend Leonardo Sciascia. He also wrote Tommaso and the Blind Photographer)

Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark (Spark’s greatness lies in her dark often disturbing humour, and her extreme economy when it comes to comic effects)

The Truth about the Savolta Case by Eduardo Mendoza (one of Barcelona’s best known novelists. As with Bufalino and many other foreign writers, the great Harvill Press did them in English translation)

The Newcomes by William Thackeray (the novelist DJ Taylor has written a biography of Thackeray, though better known is his George Orwell biog)

Girl with Green Eyes by Edna O’ Brien (she hit the big time with the excellent Country Girls in 1960 but for years her books were banned in her native Ireland)

The Outcast of the Islands by Joseph Conrad

The Price of Love by Arnold Bennett (I enjoyed this little-known work immensely, and my other favourite Bennett is the hilarious The Card, turned into an entertaining film starring Alec Guinness)

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (the great writer was formerly rather a minority taste, but was rediscovered when this novel was filmed by Scorsese, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis in 1993)

Partings by Leonid Borodin (1938-2011. Borodin was imprisoned in Soviet labour camps in both 1967 and 1982)

Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012. Tabucchi was an Italian novelist who taught Portuguese at the University of Siena. He was an expert on Fernando Pessoa)

The Towpath by Jesus Moncada (1941-2005. The 1988 novel of a leading Catalan writer who also wrote the 1997 Shaken Memory)

The Paper Men by William Golding (1911-1993. His 1984 novel, and hardly his best work by any means. He won the Nobel in 1983 and when not writing liked to ride on horseback in rural Wilts. My favourite of his books is Free Fall. He took any criticism so badly that he sometimes left the country when his work was published)

What A Carve Up by Jonathan Coe (born 1961. Jonathan once kindly compared me to Flann O’ Brien, which was very flattering but alas I am not in the great man’s league).

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1910-1966. The most disturbing of his books as although a hilarious comedy it is all about a murderer stuck in Purgatory)

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O’ Brien (as well as a character called James Joyce this novel features the bonkers scholar de Selby who is also in The Third Policeman)

The Poor Mouth by Flann O’ Brien(originally published in Gaelic as An Beal Bochd in 1941. Merciless and wildly funny send up of the Blasket literature and especially of Tomas O’ Crothan’s Islandman)

At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien (the reason why I was re-reading so much O’ Brien was because I was giving a talk on him at Swansea Litfest in 1995. I was paired with Jonathan Coe who was talking about the radically experimental UK novelist BS Johnson, who committed suicide aged 40 in 1973)

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay (1876-1945. The Scottish author is famous for his 1920 philosophical science fiction epic The Voyage to Arcturus. Brought up a Calvinist, as a writer he had a notably gnostic outlook)

A Case of Curiosities by Allan Kurzweil (born 1960. Bestselling 1992 fantastical work by ingenious US author. I always somehow associate it with Patrick Susskind’s Perfume)

Dunedin by Shena Mackay (Scottish writer born 1944. I enjoyed this 1992 work but I gave her a bad review once in the Literary Review)

The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens

A Bowl of Cherries by Shena Mackay

The Lost Years by Vitaliano Brancati (1907-1954. Sicilian writer whose first books demonstrated Fascist ideals, but later he satirised Mussolini in his fiction)

The Enchanted Pilgrim by Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895. Fine stories, some very harrowing, by the great Russian author who was much esteemed by Tolstoy, Chekov and Gorky. If you haven’t read him, you really should do)

Jean Santeuil by Marcel Proust (read in English needless to add)

Collected Stories by Shena Mackay

Fatal Intimacy by Emile Zola

The Island by Gustav Herling (1919-2000. Polish writer and dissident who spent time in a Soviet gulag)

The Stuff of Youth by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970.  Devout Roman Catholic who vigorously condemned French anti-semitism when he saw it. As you see re the 6 novels below, if I like a writer I tend to like him or her to excess)

The Desert of Love by Francois Mauriac

The Enemy by Francois Mauriac

The Kiss of the Leper by Francois Mauriac

Genetrix by Francois Mauriac

That Which Was Lost by Francois Mauriac

The Dark Angels by Francois Mauriac

The Open Mind by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948. Best known for Diary of a Country Priest, and this novel is based on the author’s own spiritual crisis)

Romance by Joseph Conrad

The Yellow Sofa by Eca de Queiroz (Portugal’s greatest 19th C author. Annie and I visited his birthplace in Povoa de Varzim near Porto in 1985)

To The Capital by Eca de Queiroz (both these works were published by the excellent Carcanet Press run by Michael Schmidt in Manchester)

Masters of the Italian Short Story (an old anthology, part of an endearingly encyclopaedic collection of stories from all over the world)

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1895-1985. This autobiography of the famous poet, classicist  and author of I Claudius, was published in 1929)

State of Absence by Tahar Ben Jalloun (born 1944. Powerful Moroccan novelist and a former philosophy professor)

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahzouz (courageous and brilliant Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1988)

A Confession by Maxim Gorky (much admired by Lenin, his real name was Peshkov, and Gorky means ‘bitter’. I really love his short stories and his mostly out of print novels)

The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom (innovative Dutch novelist and travel writer born 1933. His father was accidentally killed in a British air raid in WW2)

Salavin by Georges Duhamel (1884-1966. Startling existential novel by major but neglected French author who was also a doctor)

Childhood by Marcel Pagnol (1895-1974. Souvenirs d’ Enfance appeared in 4 volumes between 1957 and 1977. Pagnol was also a great film maker, as in the Marseilles movies that included the 1931 Marius and the 1932 Fanny)

The City and the Mountain by Eca de Queiroz

Patrice Periot by Georges Duhamel

The Circling Song by Nawal el Saadawi (born 1931. Courageous Egyptian novelist, feminist, activist, doctor and psychiatrist)

The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre (1945 novel compellingly televised by the BBC in 1970 and starring Michael Bryant as Mathieu)

The Astonished I by Dick McBride (1928-2012. Dick was an American friend of mine who lived in Worcs and had been a part of the Beat movement and knew all its celebrities like Corso and Ginsberg. He spent most of his life as a bookseller and wrote a memoir for Panurge magazine in 1995)

The Clash by Arturo Barea (1897-1957. Last volume of his 3-part memoir The Forging of a Rebel. As a socialist and a union organiser he had to flee Fascist Spain for the UK where he died)

Boy by James Hanley (1895-1974. Shocking 1931 novel by Liverpudlian writer about a boy sexually abused in the merchant navy. Predictably it was prosecuted for obscenity and the Oxford publishers Boriswood lost their case. In 1996 BBC Radio 3 did a truly moronic adaptation where, God knows why, the actors all had cheery Geordie accents, thus robbing it of any and all dramatic tension)

Tent of Miracles by Jorge Amado (1969 novel by celebrated leftist Brazilian writer whose books were publicly burned in 1937 and whose work was banned in Fascist Portugal)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1918-2006. Maggie Smith played her unforgettable central role in the film version of this 1961 novel)

 

 

WHEN BONNIE WENT TO THE HEBRIDES

The next post will be on or before Christmas Eve

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1994

At the start of 1994 we acquired our new dog Bonnie from the Carlisle animal refuge at Wetheral. Our previous pet, the legendary Bill (1976-1993), a beautiful black and tan cross who was loved to distraction even by those who didn’t like dogs, had died the previous April at the estimable age of 16 and a half. Bonnie was a horse of another colour, a sweetly timid and angelic little brown pup who 4-year-old Ione naturally doted on, and a hefty and ungainly mongrel when she reached maturity, a cross between a walloping greyhound and a miniature donkey. She showed her true mettle when she was nine months old and on a boiling hot August day stole half a pound of butter from the dining room table, which she consumed at her leisure on our best sofa. The melted butter dribbled into the beautiful antique item and when we returned from our shopping the sitting room smelt like a rancid Bombay ghee factory. We tried cleaning the sofa, but it was a waste of time, and we ended up burning it and buying another at considerable cost. As deplorable rider to her overall CV, Bonnie like many another craven dog would eat any gratis excrement she chanced across, on presumably a waste not want not ethic, though indeed Bonnie never wasted and she always wanted.

The year before I had taken back Panurge fiction magazine from David Almond (born 1951) and had decided to promote it by running an International Short Story Competition. Carlisle Arts Officer Mick North and I were the judges and in February 1994 we gave 1st Prize to the American Richard Zimler (born 1956) who lives in Oporto and who subsequently hit the big time with his fine historical novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, about the cruel persecution of Portuguese Jews by the Inquisition. Joint Second Prize went to the late Julia Darling (1956-2005) one of the nicest women the world has ever seen, though her Bloodlines collection (Panurge Publishing 1995) is razor sharp and blackly comic, and impressively unsettling to read. The novelist and critic DJ Taylor handed out the cheques at the presentation in Brampton, North Cumbria, and I took the opportunity of picking Richard’s and his partner Alex Quintanilha’s brains when it came to exploring the Portuguese Alentejo, something we had coincidentally scheduled for the following month.

They recommended one of the handsomest places in the world, the exquisite walled city of Serpa which inexplicably wasn’t in the guide books in 1994, and we also visited the out of the way towns Odemira and Santiago do Cacem. To complete the circuit back to the Algarve we stopped off at wonderful Mertola, a fortified city on a hill way above the Guadiana river, which marks the border with Spain. Groups of young Spaniards come across in droves to dine in the aerial and much cheaper Portuguese restaurants, and gorge themselves on cozido, a stringy meat and chickpea confection guaranteed to drive sensitive souls to vegetarianism quicker than any amount of pious propaganda. One beautifully sunny evening there in Mertola I was pushing Ione on a swing in the fine old-fashioned playground while Annie was reading a book nearby. I was suddenly touched by an epiphany of grateful joy and expansive serenity, as I realised I had a lovely little daughter and a really lovely wife and I was here in one of the finest if unsung towns in Portugal. I mention this because 11 years later, when owing to work commitments Annie and I were obliged to take separate holidays, I revisited Mertola and sought out that playground on an identical sunny evening. I went there to re-experience the same intense epiphany and was stricken to see that the little playground was overgrown, and the swings rusted and the place barred up and defunct. Ione of course was no longer 4 but was 16 and had started on her A levels. I was as poignantly sad as an exile as I yearned for the pristine past, and stood gazing at the rust, and rued the bitter fact that we cannot stop time, not even for a second, much less a whole decade.

That August we took a second holiday to the Outer Hebrides, and to toughen her up took Bonnie along, as she was such a home dog even the somnolent market town of Brampton gave her panic attacks. We thought that Scalpay and Great Berneray, Lewis, would give Bonnie another and more discerning view of life, as being so remote and peaceful, not even she could get herself in a neurotic flap. Not so in bustling Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, and puritanical Wee Free Presbyterian capital of the world, wherein Bonnie was shitting herself at the passing traffic and five-year-old Ione was insisting that only she hold the lead of the yanking miniature donkey. I had to run alongside like an imbecile, being shouted at by Ione for exerting a dual control, whilst also anxious that terrified Bonnie would bolt for the hills and collide with a car as she did.

The island of Scalpay off Harris had no causeway then, and you needed to catch the tiny ferry from Kyles Scalpay. It was at least as puritanical as Lewis and on Sundays you hung no washing out and when I took Ione and Bonnie for a Sabbath walk through the village my little daughter’s innocent running and whooping seemed like some sinful transgression on my part, if not hers. In fact, I told her to pipe down and said I would give her a great deal of chocolate later, if she did. Meanwhile Scalpay was nearly all Gaelic speakers and was also a prosperous little place with most of the islanders engaged in lobster fishing. There was also the bizarre presence of a massive wooden shack of a shop run by an old man wearing a bosun’s cap who was straight out of the Para Handy tales of Neil Munro (1863-1930). The shop was evidently on its last legs as the numerous shelves had nothing whatever to purchase in the food line, aside from some 50 bottles of gravy browning and 5 tins of processed peas. At a distant table though, old Para had a sumptuous collection of locally knitted Harris sweaters and he was keen to foist one of these on Annie at whom he looked with glistening and tender eyes, as if she reminded him of someone from his remote past. Of course, in order to test for size Annie had to remove her jacket, then don the lovely sweater, but before she did so the old Teuchter could not resist advising her in his sonorous Hebridean lilt.

“That is indeed a fine big back you have on you, missus!”

 

What I read in 1994 (from my 1994 Diary)

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane (1904-1996. One of the funniest and subtly nuanced English language novelists of the 20th century)

The Pasquier Chronicles by Georges Duhamel (the Pasquier Dad is a hoot. Should he spot someone on a tram in Le Havre with say a large nose he upbraids them in public for their unseemliness. Try also Duhamel’s existential masterpiece, Salavin)

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (1914 – 1997. Fine Czech writer who had a habit of giving away his book’s film rights when drunk, but doing so to more than one recipient. He wrote Closely Observed Trains as adapted for the hilarious Jiri Menzel film of 1966)

Broken April by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. The great Albanian novelist who lives in Paris, and who I interviewed for the Independent on Sunday in 1997 after he had been awarded the Legion d’Honneur. This illuminating novel is about the ancient Albanian Kanun or Honour Code)

Jean de Florette by Marcel Pagnol (everyone has seen the 1986 Claude Berri film with Gerard Depardieu, but Pagnol was also a great film maker himself, and the movies set in 1930s Marseilles are atmospheric masterpieces)

A Good Natured Fellow by Paul de Kock (1793-1871. Immensely productive and popular, sometimes saucy French writer referred to in James Joyce’s Ulysses. He once wrote a novel called The Girl With Three Pairs of Stays. His father was guillotined in the Terror)

The Puritan by Liam O‘Flaherty (1896-1984. O’ Flaherty born on the Galway Aran Islands, wrote many powerful novels which are barely read these days e.g. Skerritt and Mr Gilhooley. I believe that the latter anticipates Beckett’s early novels like Murphy and More Pricks Than Kicks, meaning that O’Flaherty got there first so to speak)

The Undying Grass by Yashar Kemal (best known for Memed my Hawk)

Confessions of a Young Man by George Moore (George Moore isn’t much read these days, which is a shame as his Esther Waters is a fine novel and has been regularly adapted for TV and radio)

Dr Pascal by Emile Zola (the author famously hounded because of his courageous denunciation of the disgracefully anti-semitic Dreyfus affair)

The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B Traven (I once owned a valuable first edition of this which I was mad enough to give away)

Shepherds of the Night by Jorge Amado (1912-2001. Epic Brazilian novelist who writes about the northern Bahia province and its Candomble religious tradition, introduced by African slaves. He is full of gusto but tends towards the macho)

The Fifth Estate by Ferdinando Camon (1970 novel by Italian writer born 1935)

Nocturne and Other Stories by Gabriele d’ Annunzio (1863-1938. Quixotic Italian writer and soldier who organised his own short-lived city state in Fiume of which he was self-proclaimed Duce. Inevitably he was to influence the likes of Mussolini and Hitler)

The Girls of Alexandria by Eduar el Kharrat (1926-2015. Egyptian writer who was a Coptic Christian. This novel wonderfully evokes Alexandria in the 30s and 40s)

Knot of Vipers by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970. 1932 novel by a devout Catholic writer who sparred with Camus and later Roger Peyrefitte after the latter had satirised the Vatican. He vigorously condemned anti-semitism and the use of torture in colonial Algeria. Nobel winner 1951)

The Forge by Arturo Barea (1897-1957. The first part of his compelling three-part autobiography The Forging of a Rebel. He lived in exile in the UK after the Spanish Civil War and died in Faringdon, Oxfordshire)

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (first read in 1983. The fiction magazine I edited Panurge is so named after Pantagruel’s outrageous manservant)

Zest for Life by Emile Zola

His Masterpiece by Emile Zola

The Frontenac Mystery by Francois Mauriac

Showdown by Jorge Amado

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (I remember reading this in the bath in Great Berneray in the Outer Hebrides)

Too Far from Home by Paul Bowles (best known for The Sheltering Sky)

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (there are 2 superb TV adaptations of this. The 1978 one scripted by Dennis Potter, starring Alan Bates, and the more recent one featuring the excellent Ciaran Hinds)

Victory by Joseph Conrad

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940. Novelist, playwright and doctor, best known for his startling political fable The Master and Margarita. Stalin interceded to stop his being persecuted, but latterly he was unable to publish or perform)

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993. This 1966 novel is about the bombing of Hiroshima and won worldwide acclaim)

The Concert by Ismail Kadare

East West by Salman Rushdie

The Rising Tide by Molly Keane

A Dream of Something by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975. Not everyone knows that star director Pasolini was a poet and gifted novelist as in this 1962 work. Pasolini was murdered with revolting cruelty, run over by his own car and tortured, probably by mafia extortionists)

Diaries of Arnold Bennett (extremely enjoyable though amusingly at the end of every year Bennett calculates how many thousand words he has written and how much money he has made)

Money by Emile Zola

England Made me by Graham Greene

Celia by EH Young (one of Virago Classics’ great rediscoveries)

Nazarin by Benito Perez Galdos (this 1895 novel was turned into a film by Luis Bunuel in 1959. Galdos was Spain’s greatest literary figure of the 19th century)

Diaboliad by Mikhail Bulgakov

Doom by William Gerhardie (don’t be put off by the title as this is a comedy by the ‘English Chekov’)

Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (1915-1970. Married three times and her first husband was the poet Robert Lowell. She won the Pulitzer prize but was dogged by depression, alcoholism and pulmonary disease)

The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare (1963 novel turned into both a 1989 Albanian movie and a 1983 Italian film, the latter starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimee)

City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza (one of Barcelona’s best-known novelists born 1943. This historical novel appeared in 1986)

DRINKING YOURSELF TO DEATH

The next post will be on or before Sunday 17th December

DRINKING YOURSELF TO DEATH

Sometimes life’s ironies can be a bit too much. Yesterday morning while I was working in the Paradisos café here in Kythnos, the TV was blaring with a wonderfully decerebrated US movie about a race against time crisis involving, guess what, aeroplanes and frantic air pilots. It was such virtuoso garbage that even the Greek subtitles looked embarrassed, but it had been on for well over half an hour before I realised that the lead actor was Nicholas Cage (born 1964) a man who is currently worth around $25 million, and is nephew of the illustrious director Francis Ford Coppola. The reason why I felt moderately sad rather than terminally disgusted, was that only the night before, and for the fourth time, I had been watching Cage in his mesmerising star performance in the 1995 Leaving Las Vegas, as Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood script writer and raging alcoholic, who decides to literally drink himself to death on a mad terminal spree in Las Vegas. It was based on the autobiographical novel of John O’Brien (1960-1994) who tragically committed suicide two weeks into the shooting of the film. Cage portrays the pitiful dissolution of this talented young writer with amazing and frightening fidelity, and was rightly awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actor and Academy Award ditto. For research purposes he not only read O’Brien’s novel but went binge drinking in Dublin (and had his friends film his facial expressions while doing so) presumably because he thought that’s where folk really know how to pack it away, but Cage also visited hospitalised celebrity alcoholics and described the research as very enjoyable. Likewise, his co-star Elisabeth Shue (born 1963) who played the Las Vegas call girl Sera and who falls seriously in love with him, also went and talked to experienced Las Vegas hookers.

The film was directed by Mike Figgis (born 1948) who outstandingly is one of the few good things to come out of Carlisle, Cumbria, my home county, though luckily for him he swiftly moved to Nairobi and then Newcastle upon Tyne. Figgis not only directed the movie, he also wrote the screenplay and was responsible for the potent and haunting film noir music that plays throughout. I may be wrong but as the credits raced past at lightning speed, I’m sure it said he played trumpet on some of the score, so let’s just agree he is a Renaissance Man who makes me and you look like the bone-idle slouches we tend towards as default and in line with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. And talking of moving towards maximum entropy, that is essentially what happens to Ben the screen writer, when at the start of the movie he skips joyfully if alarmingly around the booze aisles of an LA supermarket with an outsize trolley, and rapidly empties them of all whisky and vodka. Then of course with absolute predictability, by the end of the film he is sprawled senseless and inert on a seedy Las Vegas hotel bed, just as he set out to be. En route he gets in practice as a grovelling sponger when in an LA bar he bumps into 2 writer colleagues and their girlfriends, and his excessive bonhomie fools no one, especially when he asks for a private confab with one old pal who gives him all his cash and tells him he never wants to see him again. That evening he blows the ‘loan’ in a downtown bar where the sardonic barman grins as he insists on buying drinks for a gentle young woman dressed alluringly all in pink and who is obviously attracted by him, whilst aware he is a pathetic babbling drunk. He proposes they spend the night together, but she gently and kindly says she has to get up early, then as she leaves urges him please to stop drinking all that booze.

The next day Ben’s boss calls him in and sheepishly tells him without any explanation that he is letting him go. There is a generous severance cheque in the envelope he passes across, and when Ben goes to cash it in his bank, the agony of squirming public humiliation is harrowingly evoked. Ben’s hands are shaking so badly he cannot hold a pen, and he even ludicrously asks if it can be cashed without a signature. He then does what most alcoholics would do, and goes back to the same bar to take the hair of the dog. The barman after reproving his early morning boozing and evidencing an unwonted compassion, suddenly gets perversely angry with Ben and finally, rejecting all responsibility for the ridiculous wreck in front of him, chooses to give him a large drink on the house. Back in the bank and with steady hands, he enters a bizarre waking fantasy where the handsome counter clerk has decided to coat her breasts and  genitals with bourbon and he is happily and heroically licking it off. He seems to be speaking this aloud to the consternation of the other customers, but as the bank clerk doesn’t bat an eyelid throughout, we can assume it is all going on inside his drunken head. Later that day in one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Ben enters a classy strip joint, clutching a bottle of whisky, and as the ferocious yet muted jazz gets ever more piercing, the stripper with remarkable and unbelievably conical breasts seems to weave provocatively towards him through the darkness. Ben is drunkenly delighted and after his neighbour refuses a swig from his bottle, he promptly gulps it entire and then goes into terrifying convulsions, alarming to behold to everyone watching, apart from the unshockable stripper.

The next day Ben’s madness follows its natural course, and prior to his terminal exit to Las Vegas, he decides to make a fire in his yard out of unwanted things like his clothes and most other personal possessions. He drives off to the gambling city glugging away at a whisky bottle, paying but sporadic heed to motorcycle cops who happen to be driving parallel. Once reached Las Vegas he almost runs over a handsome call girl who tersely chides him but accepts his offer of $500 for a night of love in the horrible motel room he has just booked. She introduces herself as Sera and on his bed, she performs fellatio which given his extreme drunkenness seems little short of a miracle. Just as Ben’s drinking himself to death motif, is reminiscent of the excellent subversive 1973 French movie La Grande Bouffe where some world-weary rich businessmen (two of them played by  Marcello Mastroianni and Philippe Noiret) decide to eat drink and fuck themselves to death, so Sera the hooker’s confessions to presumably her offscreen therapist, seem to echo Jane Fonda as call girl Bree Daniels in another US noir masterpiece, Alan Pakula’s 1971 Klute. There Fonda dilates to her therapist about how she is a truly excellent hooker and that is mostly down to the fact she feels nothing whatever for her johns. Sera says the same and adds that she can assume anything and be anything, adopt any kind of perversion or performance to suit her clients, but otherwise she had nil emotional involvement with them. Both of these women are confounded by the fact they have for the first time in years fallen in love; in Fonda’s case with the capable and charismatic private eye Klute (Donald Sutherland) and Sera less convincingly with the pathetic and suicidal drunk Ben Sanderson. This then is the one serious weakness in Leaving Las Vegas, that we have to believe that Ben’s hopelessness as an adult male, his pitiful disabling addiction, and his frequent sexual incapability, all appeal to and conquer a woman who spends her time dealing with men who are by contrast violent, perverted, unloving and at times plain terrifying.

One such happens to be the volatile and disturbing pimp who controls her, a Latvian immigrant called Yuri Butro played very capably by the Englishman Julian Sands (born 1958 in Otley near Leeds). When Yuri makes love to her he does so in silence and with frighteningly brutal and contemptuous thrusts of his hips. The same night she sleeps with Ben she returns to tell Yuri she had made very little money that evening. Yuri enraged starts beating her around the face whereupon she picks up a knife on the table and we assume she is about to fight back. Instead she offers the knife to Yuri, then bends over and exposes her underwear and invites him to cut her backside by way of punishment, as if he cuts her face it is bad for business. Instead of accepting the provocative offer, Yuri shrieks at her in what sounds like convincing Russian but might have been Latvian, and he shows a similar surprising restraint later when some Polish mobsters come looking for him, and he unselfishly shoos Sera out of the way so that she does not get what is about to be meted out to him.

As part of her pursuit of regressive fairytale innocence, call girl Sera gets Ben to move over to her place where he has to sleep on the couch rather than share her bed. They declare their love for each other, and then decide to have some fun at the nearby casino. Once there, all is going well until Ben explodes for no obvious reason and has to be ushered out of the place with Sera as well as the culprit being banned for good. Sera then breaks her promise and tries in her desperation to get this one and only love of her life to see a doctor. Ben in his barely sentient attrition angrily rejects her and wretchedly she sets off to find some business in a place called the Excalibur Hotel. There three college students want to have serial sex with her which she refuses before changing her mind. Thereupon they demand anal sex which again she refuses, and at that point they embark on a hideous gang rape.  The next morning, she staggers back distraught and unkempt to her flat, and the landlady is there with her notice to quit. After a phone call from Ben she goes and visits him on his death bed, and again remarkably she would appear to bring this corpse to life when they have a half-dressed and orgasmic copulation. Shortly afterwards, Ben Sanderson the LA screen writer dies, and the film ends.

For all the unconvincingness of their identity as truly romantic lovers brought together in ironic extremis, Mike Figgis’s film is redeemed and put to the top of the league by two things. Firstly, there is the miracle of Nick Cage’s world class sympathetic and nuanced acting, with its fearless intensity and its brilliant wavering between chirpy sophomore optimism and rank and panicking and very unAmerican spiritual desolation. Secondly, and this might sound even a bit facetious, the prodigious musical accompaniment, the blindingly powerful black and burning jazz score, together with the acute and sensitive photography are of such piercing and allusive power that they notch up another 30 per cent to the quality of what is a quite exceptional film. After all, even people who love cinema often forget that film, like TV, is par excellence a visual medium where the spectators’ eyes should be as busy as the brain, but how many US or UK directors do you know are prepared to take a risk and put a lot of their energies into the non-verbal, the pre-verbal, the world that is quite simply beyond words? Instead by timid and imitative default, they go for discursive dialogue and sequential plot and hope that that will carry the day and win all the prizes. That is just the kind of formulaic movie Nick Cage has spent most of his life making, but here in Leaving Las Vegas and also in that fine comic role as the inept and idiotic thief in the Coen Bros’ Raising Arizona (1987) Cage shows how much exactly he has got stored under his sleeve, and I for one am completely bowled over and would like to ask for more.