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)



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