The next post will be on or before Christmas Eve


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)

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