(Chapter 2 is the previous post. Chapter 4 appears tomorrow)


Why All The Women Are Upside Down

I looked at my alarm clock and saw that although the lurid green spectre of my Uncle Wilfred had been orating for what seemed an hour, the hands of the clock had not moved an inch. I put this anomaly to my dead relative and he raised his weary eyebrows and did not deign to answer, as if to say how simple minded to think that an avuncular ghost as your small hours interlocutor would be subject to the usual laws of chronology and sequence. Then with a shuffling impatience, he went on to tell me about the vision he had had, thanks to these obligatory supernatural powers of his, of my future over the next few years. What he revealed was wholly surprising to me, and it started with the touching picture of my daughter Sarah, an IT specialist aged twenty-five, encouraging me before long via her laptop in Manchester to join that ubiquitous if inevitably compromised digital phenomenon known as a dating site, and after initial reluctance my following her advice. By the summer of 2014 Joanie had been dead for four and a half years and Sarah by now felt it was high time I had found myself a lively, healthy and optimistic partner, especially as I was stuck upon a remote Greek island where few spoke English and I had only basic Greek. That said, the baroque and technical business of computer dating, inevitably obliged Wilfred to use words new and outlandish to him, such as online, internet, site and website, and true to form and being the phantasm that he was, he made ghostly blurs of these vocables with his own florid approximations. So it was that online often became ‘onion’ in his spectral mouth (hence ‘onion dating’ and later and in another context ‘onion banking’), and the internet often received the interesting semantic distortion ‘Hinder Not’. Site and website predictably became his unmusical perversions of shite and webshite, but as you will see below, he generally alternated or random shuffled the proper terms with his extraordinary transliterations.

As Wilfred explained to me: “The Hinder Not is so called because this wonderful and beautiful thing hinders nobody and nothing, son, but gives them access to damn near everything they want! Don’t get me wrong, Joe Soap, I’m no Luddite. Not only did I have one of the first cars, a Rolls Silver Ghost no less, in Ballyferriter in 1907, I also by 1910 had not one but two telephones, meaning Ballyferriter 7 for the house and Ballyferriter 8 for my studio/retreat at the bottom of the garden. You know, I’ve been looking hard at this remarkable Hinder Not phenomenon and I say to myself it’s bloody brilliant and I wish I had had it in my day. Dingle branch library in 1909 or even in 1959 was scarcely on a par with its go-ahead counterpart in hoary old Alexandria, and if you wanted to read about things like gynaecology or reproduction, even that of midges or of mice, you needed the signed approval of at least three priests all aged over eighty-five.  These days at two clicks of the doings on your hotpot you can find out about for example seventeenth century Serbian poetry if you want, or an experienced medical specialist without the textbooks to hand, can research a rare and worrying cancer likewise. That can only mean what is good and wholesome and a fine thing for the human race.” He paused, lit another atemporal Afton, then went on approvingly. “But that aside, daughter Sarah will soon be putting you on a carefully chosen website called Lovebirds Dirt Com. I trust that you have heard of it?”

I furrowed my brow. “Never in the memory of mankind.”

“Well hats off to it, as it is a very fine shite. A bloody fine old shite, I’m telling you, Joe. Relatively speaking that is. Actually, between me and you, and to play The Other One’s Advocate, it’s not all that fecking great at bottom, it’s just that all the rest are more or less abominations. Plus, Loveballs Do Come caters for those of a liberal, socialistic and educated background, meaning that thanks to Sarah and without too much delay, you will hopefully be finding women with admirably shared values as well as fine and strapping and rotund appendages.”

Then Uncle Wilfred added something I found very startling, which was that having, thanks to his visionary powers, surveyed all the Lovebirds women of the age range I would eventually specify, the majority of them being British, on a bad day he was sorely tempted to have the preposterous thought that they were all the same person

I was immoderately astonished. “That doesn’t make sense, Uncle Wilfred! I know enough about dating sites to know there will be hundreds of photos of these women, all with descriptions of their likes and dislikes and their preferences in men. They can’t possibly be just a Single, Lone and Pristine Female Superwoman or whatever you are saying they are. Apart from anything else, such a woman couldn’t possibly date five hundred adoring men over a limited or even a limitless period. If for example she is a Londoner dating only Londoners, she’d get in a hell of a muck sweat from hurtling up and down on the smelly underground, and a horrible calcified scale on the roof of her mouth from imbibing all those sticky little cappuccinos bought for her by all those hopeful blokes.”

Wilfred promptly temporised “Of course I’m employing hyperbole, but it is a measure of how truly confounded I am, and how baffled by some of the vertiginous statistics. I did a scrupulous and extremely accurate head count and I can tell you that regarding the liberal educated middle-class women aged between fifty-five and seventy-five that you Joe Soap will be approaching soon on Lovebots, no less than eighty-five per cent of them all practise Indian yoga and they also all listen to Radio Phaw.”

I guffawed my hilarious disbelief but Wilfred snorted and said that statistics do not lie and his counting had been zealous and twice checked. As it happened, some of the yoga practitioners also doubled as yoga teachers, but the more significant relationship was that all those who did yoga also listened to Radio Phaw, though of course apropos syllogistic logic not everyone who listened to Radio Phaw also practised yoga.

I said to him, “You have a bloody queer way of saying Radio Four, Uncle Wilf. It sounds more like Radio Pshaw or Radio Paugh or even Radio Faugh. Why on earth is that?”

My green-eyed great-uncle surveyed me sceptically. “I know that you yourself detest much of that station’s output, so I’m surprised you don’t see the irony in my pronunciation. In my day it didn’t exist of course, but was called the BBC Home Service and was audible even in deepest Kerry on my wonderful Bush wireless. Even then the early morning gasbags news fellers were all wearisomely stuffed and starched shirts with a brittle and hectic and risibly spurious joviality. There was also a surfeit of unfunny radio comedies laced with puerile doubles entendres, not to speak of fatuous and febrile quiz shows that would have bored a lonely nay suicidal anchorite living on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Then, God love us, there was the highlight of some folks’ week and which still remarkably survives in 2014, that appalling and nightmarish phenomenon known as Desert Island Dick…”

At this stage I misheard and thought he had said Desert Island Discs, but as the bizarre anthropomorphic version was to appear later and in an elaborated and luridly dramatic form, it is appropriate that I state it now as he actually said it.

“Let us for a while set aside the Radio Phaw programming, Joe boy. Instead I invite you to come with me on a nocturnal tour of a few adjacent leafy avenues in the more prosperous parts of liberal and tolerant North London. Here in every approximately twentieth house or basement flat, there dwells a single lady aged between fifty-five and seventy-five who happens to be on Lovesballs Do Come. As I said eighty-five per cent of such solo yet definitely appetising ladies, are zealous yoga buffs who also happen to be psychologically and just possibly physiologically addicted to Radio Phaw. Now then, my boy, thanks to my inherent vaticinatory propensities, I am able as easy as child’s play and without any prurient or Peeping Tom compromise, to see through their curtains and see exactly what they are up to every night of the week in their invariably scant leisure hours …”

I gawked and was about to say bloody hell, but he waved that aside and threw at me as if it were a thunderbolt “I have seen things that no man, whether alive or dead, should see pertaining to middle aged women viewed in their strange and esoteric anthropological pursuits, whilst aerially progressing along the boulevards of NW3, NW6, NW8, N12, N15! And what’s more, Joe Soap, don’t you be gullible enough to believe that W8, W10, W12, and SW7 and SE23 are any feckin different when it comes to their extremely eccentric floridity.”

I had no idea what Wilfred Lawless was about to reveal, but he swiftly informed me that when he went walkabout or rather flyabout in the inevitably Lovebird-populated London areas, what did he see but that eighty-five per cent of the women he glimpsed through the curtains, as if committed to the same masonic solidarity, were all doing exactly the same thing.

I was confident he was about to say something awful, and shatter my wishful-thinking romantic dreams, so asked him nervously: “And what precisely would that be?”

“They are all standing upon their heads, Joe! Every bloody one of them! Every feckin one.”

I gasped and sat up in my bed.

“All of these lady adepts are stood on their heads doing the yogic shirshasana. Every one of them whether in baggy track suits or very tight and not unbeguiling shorts, inevitably have their backsides in the air, as if doing inverse and arguably blasphemous homage to I’m not sure what…”

I scoffed and waved my hand at this algae-green fantasist who might conceivably have started on a downward decline into metempsychotic Alzheimer’s.

“It’s feckin true, Joe! Eighty-five per cent of these pan-London Loveberks Don’t Come are stood on their feminine nappers with their straining behinds in the air, and not only that but they are listening to bloody Radio Phaw with those same attentive and receptive backsides!”

I sneered and said I had never heard such mendacious nonsense in all my non-transcendental puff. For a start, I said, how could they possibly listen to anything with their stone-deaf backsides rather than their ears. There was no auditory apparatus in the buttocks, no incus, malleus and stapes bones as are found inside the human ear. Women didn’t have any such brilliant little bones inside their behinds, end of story, nor did they have any rump drums on the analogy of eardrums. Nor, and even if his ludicrous account were the preposterous case, would they all be sheeplike listening to the identical BBC radio station.

I threw back at him, “Even assuming your lunatic scenario, surely these Lovebirds women, even if all upside down doing shirshasana, would still be listening to Radio Phaw, I mean Radio Four, with their inverted lugholes. Why on earth would they resort to their backsides?”

At which point Uncle Wilfred halted his premonitory flow, and said he was obliged to give a substantial excursus, which as he put it was confirmatory evidence, if one happened to be a frustrated single Lovebird male, that is, that this notorious eighty-five per cent of Lovebird ladies had all the hallucinatory appearance of being the same one woman.

“Let me explain, my vainly quibbling little nephew. When you click with your doings on your hotpot on your Loveballs webshite, you will summon up a vast photographic gallery of mostly beaming single ladies in your desired age range. Should you then click on any photo of any fine girl that takes your specific fancy, you will be met with what is called her Full Pot or no do I mean her Potful…”

I took a whole two seconds to translate what he meant.

“Profile is it? Yes, and as well as her own profile, she will also state what she is looking for in the desired Adonis, Abelard or Andy or Angus from Wapping Town or Stow on the Wold or Strathpeffer. Once again, would you credit that eighty-five per cent of these ladies are all looking for the identical things in these notional and hopefully blemishless gentlemen partners.”

I gulped anxiously, “What exactly would that be Uncle Wilf?”

“I am afraid it is a bit of a roll call, or hyper-demanding checklist, Joe Soap. These eighty-five per cent of Laugh But Don’t Come girls would greatly prefer that you, Joe, along with all other male petitioners, be endowed with the following laudable virtues:

“Number one of the taxing requisites, is that you and your like be seen as being Comfortable Inside Your Own Skin.”

I frowned and touched my own skin as evidenced by my right hand, and wondered whether comfort and interiority were how I might feasibly characterise its principal attributes.

“Of course, nearly all of these terms didn’t exist in my day. And I don’t know why but that skin expression makes me think of taxidermy and the business of herpetology, or alternatively of the not at all despicable culinary art of sausage making. Sausages as you know Joe, are customarily stuffed inside a skin, and mostly in a manner comfortable to the compliant viand, I would hazard.”

I bristled in my bed and told my great- uncle I didn’t really want to be a compliant sausage, and apart from anything else I was a strict vegetarian. Nor for that matter did I wish to submit myself to the grisly skills of a taxidermist, assuming he or she took me to be a dead snake or other lifeless reptile that needed to be briskly stuffed. Then I shook myself out of my cowardly state and retrieved my vestiges of common sense, and told my great-uncle what was really meant by that dermatological phrase.

As I explained: “All they mean is they want a man to be relaxed, at ease, not neurotic nor moody nor irritable nor restless.”

Lawless pondered a while. “Not much to ask I suppose? Though truth to say it would have barred Dostoievsky, Flaubert, Mendelssohn, Winston Churchill, Leadbelly, Max Wall, myself Wilfred Lawless, and a few dozen other restless buggers as Laugh But Don’t Cry applicants. Still, and to move on, Joe, those same eighty-five per cent of fastidious ladies, all say they would very much like Mr Perfect to be, now what was it they want:

“They want him to be, wait for this, Not Just Mental!

I started and witlessly echoed, “Not just what?”  

“To which I concur, fair enough, I wouldn’t feckin blame them. After all who wants a slavering and possibly incontinent lunatic taking up valuable and intimate space in your bedroom or your kitchen or your scullery?”

I shuffled as I parried an attack of small hours cramp, then offered an emendation. “I think, Uncle Wilf, you mean ‘non-judgemental’”

“Eh? Do I indeed? And who the steaming ballcocks is Judge Mental when he’s at home? Are you sure he was ever called to the Bar with that kind of reputation?”

I looked at his sad, severe, yet lax and puzzled green face. ‘That term ‘judgemental’ is possibly culled from the long out of print Schoolgirls’ Bumper Christmas Book of Sociopsychology. There’s also an identical Schoolboys’ version of course. Non-judgemental if it means anything at all means the business of not passing judgement…”

My great-uncle snorted. “Do you say? As in the Sermon on the Mount. Judge not that…”

“Unlikely Uncle Wilfred, given that almost none of these ladies will have perused the Synoptic Gospels. In any case they don’t like the sound of that sober and chaste and old- fashioned phrase, ‘passing judgement’. Instead they like a hyphen and a suffix on the end as it gives them a certain semantic frisson as well a decidedly sensuous sometimes volcanic horripilation. They’d be a little happier I suppose, though not actually happy, if you were to translate judgemental as critical, hypercritical, carping, prejudiced, intolerant, that kind of thing.”

My uncle seemed almost cheered by that. “Aha. So they want a nice and friendly lad who is tolerant and uncritical and unprejudiced, so good for them, why not? Yet why can’t they spit it out instead of going for old Hanging Judge Mental with his black cap on his bastard’s head? But look, there’s another little puzzle of a word all these lassies use to describe a feller that preferentially will melt their heart. Any idea what that might be?”

I was tempted to suggest well-hung or stinking rich or having a summa cum laude PhD or being a yachtsman or an equestrian or a Kundalini yoga teacher, but simply shook my head.

“It’s another term didn’t exist when I was live and hale in Kerry. It’s on the tip of my tongue now. It’s something like Am I Pathetic? Or vacillations aside, on the part of some anxious and possibly less than lissom sixty-five- year- old gal who misbelieves: I Am Pathetic.”

I raised my right palm to indicate immediate comprehension. “A term that is also more than likely from that collector’s item, The Girl Guides’ Bumper Christmas Book of Psychosociology. You get the same thing in the Boy Scouts’ version too. The word is ‘empathetic’, Uncle Wilf.”

“Humpatettick? That’s some twat of a word, eh Joe? And who is this feckin Humping Hetty when she’s all on her own-i-o at home?”

“Empathetic just means sympathetic, Wilf, no more and no less. Of course, there are those earnestly employing it in every fourth sentence, who would vehemently argue for its ineffable subtlety. But as they would all give radically different exegeses, supposedly rendering some minute and inscrutable nuance, it is yet another bollicks neologism that obfuscates and conflates disparate and unrelated things, and thus spells a living death when it comes to sense and truth and moral integrity, and sundry other trifling little nonsenses like that.”

Wilfred squinted at me in a curious way. Then he tapped his sweetly odorous cigarette, and once more I was as entranced as an infant as the ash went flying back into the fag.

“She wants a lad who is sympathetic, more power to her, and why not? The problem is that yet again she can’t spit it out but has to dress it up in its best Sunday suit, which is actually a tawdry and graceless and even feckless garment in disguise. But listen to me Joe. We’ve now come to the last one on the checklist for His Nibs Your Man, The Ideal Lad, and this one is very likely a winner as it is a species of highly visual metaphor. It has to do with wine or possibly the dreaded water if the lady be teetotal, and with the necessary receptacle in the way of a glass. Do you know what I mean?”

I sighed, “No inkling, Uncle Wilf. Does she perhaps want a man to be as effervescent and invigorating as a glass of sparkling white wine? Or as pure and blameless and harmless and possibly spiritless and reeking faintly of antiseptic chlorine, as in a glass of tap water?”

Uncle Wilfred shook his head and said that no this was to do with those eternally fascinating mathematical fractions known as halves, and it also appertained to how the ideal romantic soulmate ought to see the world around him. In short it was to offer the prospective Adonis the experiential conundrum: did he view the world as a glass half full, or did he see it as a glass half empty?

I puckered my lips. “Sorry Uncle Wilfred, but it is still a variation on the same thing. It is evidently drawn from the inestimable Schoolgirls’ Bumper Christmas Book of Zen Buddhist Koans. And once again there is a  Zen Schoolboys’ version too. ”

My uncle raised his spectral eyebrows. “Epistemology and its debatable paradoxes? Meaning that both statements are true, but that one signifies optimism and the other pessimism, and in the worst case a sour and snappish bastard for your boyfriend, instead of one that will put an alluring and shapely spring in your puckish and alluringly maidenly step.”

I answered, “It’s labouring the point, but if in say five minutes time someone with courageous convictions is facing third degree torture in a hellhole of a Bahreini prison, or ditto seventy years ago where a beautiful twenty-year-old Jewess was about to enter a Nazi gas chamber, those remaining five minutes will never be a glass half full, whether you stand on your head and do Hatha Yoga with your arse listening to the BBC World Service, or no. What I mean Uncle Wilf is that it’s a wholly false antithesis these eighty-five per cent of Lovebirds folk are proposing. It’s appropriate to be optimistic sometimes, and inappropriate and even dangerous at others. For example, if you are one of those eighty-five per cent, and you find out that your daughter’s unpleasant boyfriend is molesting your beautiful four-year-old granddaughter, is it a glass half full or half empty that there has been no actual penetration to date? Alternatively, how about chucking the bloody glass away and flattening the bastard’s so-called manhood with a cast iron frying pan instead?”

Wilfred stared spellbound and I blushed a little at the outburst, then wondered if I was the first person ever to blush in front of a ghost. He then took me by surprise by pointing out what was glaringly obvious, but which had wholly eluded me up to this point. What he explained was that there was one very obvious implication apropos all these liberal, late middle-aged women wanting their prospective men to be sympathetic, tolerant, uncritical and unprejudiced, not to speak of the same chaps always seeing the bright side of things, and always being relaxed and at ease with themselves.

I pondered hard but had no inkling.

“Why man, because they believe themselves to be all those admirable things too! Don’t you see? If a Love Balls Come Quickly woman wants her man to be an eternal optimist, then she must assume that she herself is one, otherwise why would she demand it of anyone else?”

I gasped, “Fuckaduck, Uncle Wilf!”

Wilf waved his bog-green paw dismissively. “Likewise, and whether she realises it or not, she tacitly declares that she never ever passes judgement. She also genuinely believes she really knows how to be sympathetic at all times. She also subtly asserts that she is always at ease with herself. Not only that but she demands of herself all these sterling qualities, only in order to demand them of others!”

At that I felt a small lump in my throat. “The poor woman. What a bloody number! What a load to carry on your aching back. Talk about Herculean labours.”

He grunted, “And that’s how we get back to Radio Phaw being listened to by the woman’s inverted backside! It’s as plain as sago pudding, as far as I can see. This lovely but often lonely lass aged between fifty-five and seventy-five. spends all bloody day being perfectly tolerant and optimistic and uncritical in her job and in her leisure hours, not to speak of with her nagging parents and with her surly grown up kids, and with her horrible ex-husband and the rest, until in the end it addles her feckin brains, exactly as you would expect. As she goes about her daily business, you can see her muttering away darkly to herself all these demanding and myriad nostrums about what she has to do and what she has to be. Sometimes it turns into a lunatic word salad she finds herself suddenly jabbering. Comfortable Inside Her Own Shimmy. Pathetic Humping.  A Glass Half Crazy. Please no, Judge Mental! Do you get it? In the end she is like Bob Hope in that fine little classic comedy Paleface. The tenderfoot dentist in the derby hat who has to face a horrible gunslinger and the townsfolk who overwhelm him with a surfeit of tactical advice. They say to him that ‘That varmint bends to the left, so you must stoop to the right!’. Then they whisper, ‘The same varmint often fakes reaching for his gun so you just sit tight where you are and don’t you go draw’. Then they add the crucial rider, ‘Unless of course he ain’t faking it’. And so on. The dentist’s brain gets very addled, so that he starts talking gibberish and ties himself in knots, but my memory seems to tell me that the gunslinger shot himself by accident in the end. This then Joe Soap, is why the poor lass who thinks she has to be a perfect woman in order to earn the perfect man, needs urgently to relax sometimes. And what better way can there be than by doing her nightly spot of yoga whilst also listening to her beloved Radio Phaw. The problem is of course that her brain is so addled by so much effortful perfection, that she simply cannot concentrate on her favourite wireless show, as it goes in one lughole and comes out the other. So there in her headstand shirshasana posture with the gateway to her brains, her earholes, more or less useless, she has allowed evolutionary adaptation, Darwinian and Malthusian genetic adaptation that is, to correct her disabling malady.”

I stopped him there and asked what precise Darwinian adaptation was he talking about, given that such genetic determinants usually took inordinately long time periods to take any historic effect.

“The genetic matter of her backside taking over from her lugholes, of course! She’s upside down and enjoying her Radio Phaw at last, but only because her behind has learnt how to listen like an ear! Meaning how to forge an adaptive neural connection to her brain. These auditory neural connections linking buttocks and brain are more or less invisible, Joe, unless you use the latest microscopy. Not that you’re going to win Miss Nibbs’s tender heart if you ask to poke around her rear end with a fecking great electron microscope…”

Once again I snorted loudly and derided his preposterous nonsense, and said that auditory neural connections between the backside and the brain, to parody Flann O’ Brien, who of course Wilfred Lawless had read with much pleasure in the early 1960s, were all my bum…

My doleful relative counter-snorted, “Oh dear me. I can see you are a blinkered eejit when it comes to rigorous empirical science, as well as an amateur when it comes to having a truly flexible intellect. Let me give you a convincing analogy to explain what I mean. Like many a man with a sweet tooth I have needed to visit my dentist very often, with the net result I have a colossal number of metal fillings in my gob. Very well. One day back in 1962, I was snoozing out in my Ballyferriter garden when I suddenly heard the strains of Rachmaninov being broadcast very close to my earholes on the old BBC Third Programme. At which point I rapidly shook myself awake and thought to myself, that’s fecking queer…”

I was genuinely surprised by his quaint philistinism. “I’d have thought a man like you would have enjoyed a genius of a musical modernist, Wilf. You were always the progressive as I recall, and you once said that Lutoslawski…”

“Pah! I didn’t mean the great Russian whose piano music had me half way to this place, meaning the afterlife, as I hearkened to its transcendental echoes. No, it was the fact that I only had one wireless in my house and it happened to be in a Dingle TV and radio repair shop at the time. While, as I say, the music was only inches away from me, or more accurately was actually unarguably inside of me! But before, great nephew, you tut tut any more with your peevish contrariness, the reason I was listening to the Third without a solitary wireless in my house, was precisely because the BBC signals were being picked up by one of my feckin fillings!”

I leered at him very rudely. “Horseshit, Wilfred Lawless! You couldn’t have convinced a superstitious Kerry peasant of that in 1895, the kind that a bullying priest might threaten to turn into a goat, and so convincingly that the credulous bugger always believed him.”

“Like it or lump it, Doubting Joe Soap! Let me but add that it was with Filling Number One, Lower Molars, that I picked up Rachmaninov on The Third. Next to it was Radio Hilversum and a talk in Dutch about how to build a garden shed from nothing but plywood, grass and glue. On Filling Number Three, Upper Molars, American Forces Network were playing the revolutionary and intoxicating jazzman Charlie Parker who I’d never heard before but appreciated at once and without any hesitation. Adjacent on Filling Four and in English was a broadcast from Radio Sofia about soaring steel production in early 1960s Bulgaria thanks to the solidarity of the beloved proletarian people and the rooting out of treacherous bourgeois, anti-capitalist elements. Meanwhile on Fill…”

I snapped at him wearily, “That’ll do.”

“Well the conclusion is obvious enough, Joe Soap. If I was able to pick up a wonderful Radio Delhi sitar and sarangi broadcast on one of my incisor fillings in 1962, then fifty-two years later in 2014 a woman in London N12 whose brain is addled by all her self-imposed perfectionism, can easily listen to Radio Phaw with her evolutionarily adapted behind. Apart from anything else it frees her hands down below to get on with things that these days people like you refer to as auto-pilot activities. I believe you also call the curious phenomenon ‘mouldy taxis’ or the like?”

That had me stumped for a good five seconds. At length I surmised the near homophone of ‘multi-tasking’…

“Exactly. While her evolutionarily adapted backside is listening to The Archers or Desert Island Dick or Money Box with Louise Bott-Hang or Just a Feckin Minute with Micklemas Parson… down below she is busy with one of her hands on one of those new-fangled phones playing a wholly mechanical word game called Drivel or Rubble or the like. No? Scrabble? I’ll believe you. And with her other phone in her other hand, while her backside is busy with Radio Phaw, she is merrily doing her Cryptic Crosswords, a masonic kind of lexical game with pre-agreed and tortuous and wholly pointless rules, that is possibly rather less interesting than Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, and for that matter even less riveting than watching one’s kitchen sink emptying.”

And with that it was as if he had tacitly declared that he would rest his case. I meanwhile could only think of that egregious eighty five per cent of Lovebirds women and wondered how the hell I could possibly find and put my faith in the hands of the remaining  fifteen.


















(Chapter 3 will appear tomorrow. Chapter 1 was yesterday’s post)

The Affair With Maggie Binding, Two Years Before Uncle Wilfred’s Warning

In late 2013 I left England for a remote Greek island called Kalamos, but some six weeks before my departure became involved with a beautiful woman called Maggie Binding, divorced and with a partner called Alfie who knew nothing whatever of our covert and very passionate liaison. My wife Joanie had died of secondary cancer in 2009, but had she been able to speak to me from the beyond (rather on the lines of Wilfred Lawless and his small hours Cycladean Pillow Talk) she would have pondered seriously, then cautioned me about a potentially hazardous adventure. My daughter Sarah who was born in 1989, had attended the same junior school as Maggie’s two children in Cleator Moor, a singular and very unusual small town of predominantly Irish extraction, the original nineteenth century immigrants from Mayo coming over to toil in the booming haematite mines. This meant that either Joanie or I would pick Sarah up from school and would end up chatting and joking with other amiably dawdling parents. Maggie, back around 1998, though friendly to all and no snob, had regularly homed in on both of us as reassuringly familiar middle class professionals, so that my wife and I swapped notes one day and agreed that she was dull as hell and tended to prattle in a way that seemed adaptive rather than innate, meaning someone in her life, most likely her Dad, who I later discovered was a school headmaster (and they are for sure the worst) had decided back in the early 1960s that he wanted a polite, malleable, ductile and sweetly chatty little girl, and so his docile daughter had duly and instinctively obliged and never known when and how to stop, God love her.

Joanie who was a long-established psychotherapist, and who had rented an eighteenth century stone cottage in lovely Ennerdale near Cleator Moor for her thriving practice, one day said: “Maggie Binding is surely one of the worst casebook examples of an alterated ego. She tries so hard to be saccharine nice, it is bloody exhausting as you shuffle from foot to foot and wait for her to halt. I struggle like hell, even as a therapist, to spot a glimpse of where her authentic personality might lie. She told me one day that when she married Joseph and they’d had their kids he wouldn’t let her take any part-time work at Maryport Tech even though they could have afforded nurseries and childminders ten times over. She had to be a full-time mother even though she’s a very able physics lecturer and was obviously bored shitless at home much of the time. No wife of his, Joseph sternly informed her, was to go out and work, if it meant the children were to be neglected. The pompous little shite. He is ten years younger than us, and so he was three when the Beatles and the Stones took off, yet he behaves like some third-rate caricature of a Victorian patriarch. But far more galling than that, to another professional woman like me, that is, is the fact Maggie Binding shows no anger nor rage at his ludicrous tyranny. On one level she really believes she always has to do what she is told by this fatuous little authoritarian who happens to be her revered husband.”

Joseph Binding, who was short, dapper and inordinately fond of blazers, and who tended to appear either genially quizzical or coyly bumptious, was confident of his diamond-sharp wisdom because by the age of forty he was Principal no less, of another Tech college over in Penrith, and with a massive stipend to boot. I grunted and suggested to Joanie that maybe poor boring Maggie needed a counsellor or a sympathetic therapist like herself to help her with some basic assertiveness against a fossilised male.

My wife snorted, “Like fuck she does. A therapist can’t just import or inject something like simple courage from nowhere. The remedy is much simpler. She just needs to give herself a bloody good kick up the behind. Then boot Milord Joseph Binding in the bollocks and tell him to stay at home himself, if he thinks the children are so dependent on an absolute and exquisite parental sacrifice.”

Shortly after that conversation Maggie Binding disappeared entirely from view, and bizarrely, though possibly because of her remorseless prattle, neither of us thought to ask anyone where she had gone. Joanie was to courageously survive both primary and secondary breast cancer for another ten years, and during that period we saw nothing whatever of Joseph nor Maggie who had lived in a truly baronial mansion at Rheda, on the back road between Bowthorn and Frizington.  If I thought about Maggie at all I imagined she had moved away a pleasingly long way, possibly London or Kent or some somnolent Home Counties town like Caterham or Tring, and that Joseph was a tenured principal still full of numbered instructions for his docile wife, and she by now was a senior physics lecturer in another Tech, very likely being bullied by her far younger male colleagues. Then one day four years after Joanie’s death when I hadn’t seen Maggie for almost fifteen years, I bumped into her in Maryport of all places and was amazed when I saw her, as if she like Wilfred two years later, were a colourful revenant or a hocus-pocus magician who had turned up out of the blue in a way altogether eerie and uncanny.

I was in Maryport because there was a week-long Literature Festival, and a high profile one at that, the little town being such a scenic place with its well-established Blues Festival, its handsome renovated marina, its cobbled descent to the docks, and its touching geographic obscurity. There was a picturesque and beamingly effulgent Don Juan of a former American president giving a sold out talk; ditto an aggressively conservative Tory Education Secretary, the one who looks, talks and thinks exactly like Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (as opposed to Signor Carlo Collodi’s); an aged cricket star with very bloated veins suggestive of a drink problem who had just published his amiably scattergun memoirs; a leading TV chat show host called Charlie Cox, the one who is sing song Welsh and cross-dresses and is impish as a cheeky small boy, and had strong testimonials in both The Sun and The Guardian (and the Workington Times and Star) to his ineffable comic genius…seemingly everything under the sun in fact, apart from these pedestrian and dreary buggers called writers, until I reread the programme and saw there were a full four out of twenty events that were authentically literary. Of those, one was a local with a fitfully national profile as a roving journalist and author, and he was called Joe Lawless aka Joe Soap and he turned out to be me.

I stared at her for two incredulous seconds. “Bloody hell! Where on earth did you spring from?” And because I am inordinately obsessed by mental arithmetic and chronology. “I haven’t seen you for over fifteen years.”

She smiled at me with great warmth, and looked outstandingly, overwhelmingly, miraculously handsome. Maggie was tall and had long fair hair, a pale and serene complexion, plus myriad little freckles that were subtly enchanting as they made you think of the visceral joys of adolescence or even childhood. It might seem improbable but I also saw in two seconds flat that her temperament and her personality were radically altered. For the first time ever, I noticed that she had something called poise or even equipoise, and I saw that such a miracle was evidently a function of having been through some kind of ordeal, for she had in those fifteen long years quite possibly suffered like we all can do, but had obviously sobered and recovered and had seemingly successfully renewed herself. I was also prepared to lay an odds-on bet that she had stopped her customary streaming prattle.

She said with a tiny furrowing of her beautiful nose: “No miracle. I sprang from bloody old Workington where I have been for the last twelve years.”

I was stupefied. “God love you. That’s like living in Albania under Enver Hoxha circa 1967, only worse. Workington makes horror towns like Scunthorpe and Doncaster look like Florence or Athens or Avignon. How the hell can you stick it?”

She shrugged and laughed and gave a feasible explanation. It transpired she lived in one of the very few posh and tasteful areas of Victorian villas with handsome gardens full of fruit trees and weathered oak benches. It was opposite the town museum and near to the Green Dragon pub where my old schoolteachers used to booze and play cards of a weekend…and talking of teachers it was near my old co-educational Grammar School invariably referred to by its graduates as The Brothel on the Hill.

I said to Maggie, “I don’t get it. Why would you leave that lovely secluded mansion of yours at Rheda on the way to Frizington? You just vanished from sight at one point, and I thought after a while you must be in London or have created a scandal and gone to North Cyprus perhaps?”

She smiled at the jest with a fair bit of struggle, then flounced her sumptuous hair.

“You don’t know that Joseph left me back in 1998?”

I was truly astonished. They had been childhood sweethearts down in some bland commuter village near Preston, had married when both of them were nineteen years old, and despite his complacence and anachronistic chauvinism, they had seemed happily wedded for eternity. Not to speak of the fact there were two young schoolkids, a boy and a girl in their mid-teens, those fifteen years ago.

“God, I’m so sorry…”

She touched my arm and as if under a lasting spell of tranquil hypnosis, she left it there. As a few fateful seconds passed, I looked her very intently in the eye, and hoped very much she could read my inordinately transparent mind.

“Don’t worry. It’s all prehistory now. He left me for a glamorous young woman called Laura aged twenty-five when he was forty. We are divorced and they are married and now he has her kids and barely sees his own. His contact with Sue and Joseph Junior is minimal.”

As a father, I immediately flinched at the outrage. “What a bastard. I mean sorry, I mean fuck it, Maggie, renouncing your own kids, your own flesh and blood, has to be the…”

Maggie laughed at me storming on, and her small, fine hand kept hold of mine.

“Too fucking right. He is an awful and impossible bastard. He fought for every last penny when it came to the settlement but I made him sell the Rheda mansion and I bought my nice big place in Lorne Villas. He’s out in the sticks by Lamplugh with his gorgeous Laura. She’s a local girl, a hairdresser as well as a flagrant manipulator if ever there was.”

I sniffed my infinite distaste. “Lamplugh Laura? You can’t beat alliteration when it comes to these wheeler dealers, especially the brazen West Cumbrian brand. She sounds a real charmer and a caution. And as for him, he must be steaming crazy to give up a woman like you.”

Maggie attempted a grateful and seemingly imploring smile. She appeared patently hopeful about something, for of course that had been an instinctive, unsubtle avowal of my profound personal interest. We talked for a sad while about the cruelty of Joanie’s death at only fifty-four, which was the same age that Maggie Binding was now. She had heard about it through the grapevine, and had been inordinately shocked, as she hadn’t even known about Joanie’s original breast cancer back in 1998, diagnosed round about the time that Joseph had left her. I shuffled and decided to change the subject, then gave her the momentous news that I was migrating, possibly for good, to the Greek island of Kalamos in six weeks’ time. I had a fair bit of savings, I told her, and I had bits and pieces of lucrative freelance journalism that could be written as well in Kalamos as in Cleator Moor. In any case, had Joanie lived, we had planned to retire to a quiet Greek island, very possibly to run residential courses in our separate fields.  In effect, I was doing this exodus and odyssey for both of us, jumping the starting line so to speak, in memory of her and our thirty years together.

She looked at me with admiration, her eyes visibly glistening, and eventually said she envied my determination, and was very moved by that brave commemoration. She hesitated, then frowned and told me that she was currently in a relationship, but it was makeshift and up and down and he was a good bit younger, her little toy boy, a plumber called Alfie Gray, and it was, oh it was far from satisfactory. Then, in the same breath and extraordinarily rapidly, she invited me the next time I was in Workington to meet up for coffee, when we could catch up properly on the last fifteen years. I stared at her with a thumping heart, and with an expert esoteric movement of my mobile nose end, let her know I was definitely keener than hell. And as she stared back and digested that ingenious nostril code, I said quite truthfully I had two old relatives in the town who I regularly visited. There was something about the unembarrassed and innocent excitement of her invitation that was like raw electricity, and even more so when she quickly wrote down her email and mobile number. Yet it was to be half way through our remarkable if brief liaison, a full three weeks, before she told me that while we were conferring by the Litfest bar, Alfie Gray had been only a few yards away chatting to a pal from his day release years at the Tech. The same Tech college that is where Joseph Binding, his partner’s ex-husband, had been the Principal for many years. I knew a great many people all over West Cumbria but had never heard of a plumber called Alfie Gray, and thus had no inkling of what he looked like, and bizarrer still, and given the sheer intensity of what Maggie and I were to experience, even to this day I still have no idea. Neither, until our relationship ended, did I reflect on the queasy fact that she had instantly accepted my invitation to an Indian meal at the Maryport tandoori, the Shah Jahan, when Maryport was the town where Alfie Gray lived, or at any rate the proximate suburb of Dearham, just five minutes up the road. Maggie didn’t deign to tell me where her cuckolded partner lived until a good two weeks after the curry, and even then, the significance did not register. She had it transpired recklessly indulged a tete a tete meal with me, of which toy boy Alfie knew nothing, and yet he could easily have walked through the door for one of his regular carry outs, or failing that one of his Maryport workmates, who might later reasonably mutter to him, hey Alfie boy, what’s your woman doing in the Shah holding hands with a bearded scruffy guy who doesn’t look anything at all like you?

The implication was clear enough, and no it wasn’t that she was playing with fire for some obscure gratuitous excitement. No, much simpler than that, it was because part of her wanted to be caught in a species of flagrante delicto, the delicto being the aromatic vegetable jalfrezi plus exquisite bindi and brinjal side dishes, and the stuffed parathas and the spiced onion raita we shared exactly one week after the festival. When she had twitched her own mesmerising little nose, and proposed we meet for an innocent coffee, at once I’d said to myself, I know that I want a damn sight more than coffee, and I think it extremely probable you’re after more than even the best Colombian, and so that same night I emailed her and suggested the Shah Jahan, and I would pick her up en route from Lorne Villas and drop her off on the way back.

And so indeed it went…

Over the jalfrezi and in an almost empty restaurant, Maggie told me something that took my breath away. She disclosed that Alfie Gray wasn’t just some random post-1998 date encountered as a friend of a friend, or at a Workington Tech night class in Holiday Spanish or similar. Instead one summer evening about a year after Joseph had left her, he had turned up at her Lorne Villas house and introduced himself as someone let us say piquantly congruent and painfully symmetrical in her marital devastation.

“I’m the other wounded party,” he’d informed her as he stood on the step and gave her a playful and expectant grin. He was tall, spare, faintly pugnacious, yet decidedly hesitant, quite good looking and appeared to be about ten years younger than her.

She started, as if the victim of a practical joke. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand.”

“I am or I mean I was Laura’s husband. I’m Alfie Gray. Your husband Joseph Binding went off with my wife Laura Gray a year ago. It occurred to me one year later that you and I might have plenty to talk about.”

That had been fourteen yours ago and the two of them after the bottle of fifteen per cent wine he had thought to bring with him, had been a shifting and periodically unstable unit ever since. Alfie had been an unexpected godsend when she had felt at her deserted lowest, and as she put it had been a very handy shoulder to cry on. Their lives had been brutally sundered by the same two selfish characters, and so they effortlessly came together and united in their common wounds. However very soon and in hindsight predictably, Alfie had said he would like to move in with her from his much smaller house in Dearham, but Maggie had had enough sense of self-protection to fend off his persistence.

I asked her, “What’s he like? What kind of a man is Alfie?”

She told me he was a steady hard-grafting working-class bloke who worked for a big plumbing firm and that he was simple and uncomplicated and very affectionate, and after a manner infinitely reassuring. What you saw in Alfie was emphatically what you got. On the other hand, he had his glaring limitations and as someone who had made good compared with his two failures of brothers, he was stridently conservative and typically shouted his indignation at the TV when he was enraged at the sight of benefit claimants, single mothers, immigrants, refugees and so forth.

I sighed, “Bloody hell. Sooner you than me. Working class West Cumbrian Tories are the worst in creation.”

She looked wistful and said she had left him once for a whole year and had effectively gone off the rails and slept with six men in as many months, while Alfie had stayed chaste and patient until she returned. In the past decade she had also managed to arrange a six-month paid sabbatical from the college and had done voluntary physics teaching in a Tanzanian school, and had helped raise money to build a new laboratory. That also had been a deliberate manoeuvre to get away from Alfie, and it had worked to such an extent she had applied for and just been refused, a second unpaid sabbatical. When I asked her did Alfie get on with her kids, she said that Joseph (named after his Dad of course, who had insisted on that act of fealty) and Sandy were friendly with him on a day to day exchange of jokes and teasing, but behind his back said their brainy mother was aiming way too low and that shouting at the TV like a buffoon really was the bloody pits. I also asked a lot of questions about her Tanzanian voluntary work, and she looked surprised at such a sincere interest and said no one else had ever grilled her with such curiosity.

I shook my head. “Why on earth is that? I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t they want to know every last detail and every anecdote, and especially in bloody West Cumbria where nothing ever happens that didn’t happen last week and the week before?”

She stared wonderingly at her half-eaten paratha. “I think it’s the abiding legacy I have. The long blond hair and the fact Joseph was always the boss both in public and in private. He was always making jests about my mumsy fair-haired feckless side, as he put it. The dumb blonde tag, the shorthand for me sweet old Maggie Binding, has stuck, and even my kids can treat me sometimes as if I am another kid, or even their kid.”

I frowned and tenderly took her hand, at the thought of that dreary if seemingly inevitable conspiracy.

“You teach physics to degree level, and dumb blondes and also dumb brunettes and dumb bald chauvinist men, don’t do that. Nor do they live on site in a Tanzanian village where if you’re lucky the toilet is an unhygienic hole in the ground.”

To staunch my curiosity, she told me she would send me the press cuttings she had snipped from the Times and Star. It comprised two lots of two full page features, with mugshots of her and the students, as the material had been so exotically newsworthy and such a change from Sellafield, hound trails and the Cumbrian darts and domino leagues. They were buried somewhere at home but she would fish them out. And that in turn proved to be an unsettling index of her bizarrely eroded self-esteem, as she ended up posting to my house, not, as I expected, some photocopies, but the original cuttings and thus her only copies. In her note she said to me without a single exclamation mark, throw them away when you’ve read them, and she wasn’t at all being bluffly theatrical, she really meant it. Later when I emphasised to her that she was a very interesting woman doing very interesting and important work, and those press cuttings should be preserved, not discarded, she looked at me in bafflement and said she had never known anyone talk to her like that before.

I dropped her off at Lorne Villas, but we had already arranged another outing, and this time somewhere reassuringly remote, not just from Alfie Gray, but from everyone else’s curious eyes. We both loved the sea and inspired and out of nowhere I suggested we drive down south to Drigg, depressingly proximate to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, but one of the loveliest estuaries in the world. There was a bird sanctuary there and a massive spread of glorious white sand. Some of it was signposted as hazardous and had discarded shells, possibly unexploded bombs, and other military objects, for part of it was also a defunct armaments depository, just like the aptly nicknamed Dumps at Broughton Moor near Maryport.

As she finished her wine in the Shah Jahan, I said, “You know where you are in this county, don’t you? You travel down to an exquisite natural paradise, but you have a nuclear power station to the right, and discarded possibly unexploded bombs to the left. You know I once met a very nice old lady born 1895, who remembered this coastline when there was no such thing as Sellafield, no Calder Hall, no armaments dump, and it was a pure and blemishless idyll. Seascale, the controversial little village right next to BNFL was once visited by Victorian Londoners for its salubrious sea air. In fact the moving romantic denouement of George Gissing’s The Odd Women, is set in bloody Seascale would you believe? When I read that thirty odd years ago, I nearly shot out of my chair…”

Maggie squeezed my hand to hear moving romantic denouement, while I stayed blithely oblivious to the fact that Alfie lived only a short walk away, and regularly drove here for a carry out, subsequently confirmed as always being chicken pathia, which he pronounced path-ear. When he’d had a skinful, she added with a grimace, he had been known to have not only pilau rice and peshwari nan but a heaving portion of greasy chips as well.

We took a picnic to Drigg on a fine sunny day, when the beach was all but deserted. A man and his dog were visible as tiny specks, and as we walked tenderly holding hands, above us was the euphoric chorus of drilling skylarks, my favourite birdsong. I told Maggie I had often listened to skylarks and tried to follow the song pattern, and never once, and despite their phenomenal vocal speed did they repeat anything, every riff was a one-off, meaning they outdid even the finest jazz soloists whose improvisations were never infinite. But it was a fair drive from the west, and after half an hour we were both hungry and in Maggie’s case ravenous. As she said that mundane word, for the first time in my sixty-two years and in the context of the jamming skylarks, I wondered if it had anything to do with the bird of dark reputation, the raven. Maggie had made a copious picnic and also brought a handsome blue shawl for us to sit on. It was her inspiration, not mine, to squat not on the sand, but on the turf above and in the high grass specifically. She swiftly led the way until we found a flat and bare patch surrounded by a great quantity of camouflaging ferns. She had put brie and cranberry inside handsome brown rolls, and there were grapes and orange juice and an enormous bag of handmade gourmet crisps. Once we’d wolfed it all down, and decided we wished we’d come by taxi, and could have drunk some wine, she lay flat on her back and smiled up at me with the sweet invitingness of some innocent country girl in a pastoral tale by Hardy or Coppard.

She was wearing a loose turquoise sweater that suited both her colouring and her hair, and below it a pair of faded denims, and that fadedness matched the rarefied aura of her gentle complexion. We hugged and kissed and I playfully stroked her belly button, and she laughed as if being cruelly tickled. Then she took my hand up to her bra and encouraged me to forage there and to hold and gently pinch her nipples. At which she groaned a groan of purest sweetness, the best of possible groans…

But before long I felt some encroaching threat, and murmured in a peevish tone: “If we were twenty we’d be naked by now, and we’d be busy at it, the whole shebang. But I have freakishly sharp ears, and I can hear a sniffing dog as well as accompanying footsteps.”

Maggie shot up with a virtuoso velocity, pulled down her crumpled sweater, patted her seraphic hair, and offered an angelic smile to the man in the parka and wellies, whilst cooing like a dove to his astonished terrier.

That night she stayed over, and she had to text Alfie that she was catching up with an old college friend who had moved to Dumfries. In fact she had no friends in Dumfries nor anywhere nearby, but Alfie wasn’t to know that, and in any case was always easily duped. I brought out some heavily scented massage oil ripe with the odour of aromatic oranges, and the olfactory hint of Levantine or Hindu desire. I rubbed it over her neck and shoulders and massaged patiently until the knots and hardness softened, and she began to keen and murmur. Then I put oil on her back and stroked in broad lateral sweeps and continued on to the curve of her breast at either side. Maggie Binding had a long and very lovely back, like that of a perfectly formed Arab mare, a she-horse of legend, for it went on and on and never stopped, it journeyed on to infinity and beyond, and beyond the beyond there was a place of serenity, the subtlest of all joys and the most chaste contentment. I stopped at the base of her spine and then dropped down to the top of her thighs, leapfrogging her behind. Her thighs were delicately tapered and very white, and I massaged them with the rich orange liquor, and the odour took us both to a harem in somewhere like Ottoman Greece or to a palace full of weeping peacocks in ancient Bengal.

“This is so good. It is so bloody good. I’ve never known such patient attention in all my life. It’s as if you treat it like a job. It just goes on and on and on. What I mean is that you…that you just go on and on and on and on.”

I said to her, “Like your beautiful back. It’s a wonderfully long back that goes up as far as the moon and then round the universe at least twice. It’s incredible. Meanwhile, I’ve finished with your thighs, and have left your bottom to the last.”

She snorted. “My sad backside. I don’t blame you for delaying it.”

I put my head on the pillow opposite and looked her in the eyes with protective tenderness.

“You are joking. It’s like a glistening jewel that calms the eye with its gentle radiance. In fact, it cries out to be revered. Like that. Just like that. Is that good? You have a truly exceptional woman’s bottom, exactly as described by Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

She stared at me, then helplessly shivered. “What would that be? You are nibbling like one of those fish they use for cosmetic purposes. You are happily eating away at the cellulite. So just keep on eating…”

“Cellulite, my arse. You’ve got no cellulite, I promise you. Mellors the gamekeeper said to Connie the wife of Sir Clifford, ‘Tha’s a bottom on thee that’d melt a man in his guts.’ It was the genuine worship and complete surrender of his yearning viscera to her.”

“Really? I got bugger all visceral worship from darling Joseph. In fact he was always making mean jokes about my backside, the bastard. He even joked in front of the kids when they were small as if it was a harmless bit of fun. He poked at it as if I was a cow, and said your old Mummy here has a behind like a wobbling blancmange… and being only six and seven they both roared hysterically. I laughed too like a willing fool, but I was very hurt …”

I grunted. “That bugger is pure Neanderthal, and he’s a disaster. You should have kneed him in the balls and tipped his breakfast bacon over his head.”

As Maggie came to her climax, she sniffed like a mournful little cat and then wept. In fact she always wept at orgasm, as if it were a kind of grief to discover what it was like to be treasured as well as loved.

We began to meet twice a week, so that Alfie Gray was advised of more and more college friends from long ago who had migrated to Newcastle, Durham, Lancaster or anywhere else safely distant, and, because there were to be restaurants and lots of celebratory wine, requiring that she stay overnight. To make it more convincing, she said she was going to Newcastle to see the ballet with Angela or to Manchester with Sadie to the opera, at which Alfie pulled a comical face of philistine West Cumbrian repugnance. Maggie insisted that he suspected nothing to which I made no comment, but felt that even Alfie who shouted at the benefit cheats on the telly could probably feel something being not quite right. Perhaps he silently fantasised she was moving towards another six-month promiscuous exodus or a second year-long sabbatical to Tanzania. At any rate with only two weeks to go before I moved to Kalamos, I now made the bold suggestion we go somewhere really distant and have a long weekend in my fabled alma mater, Oxford. Maggie knew Cambridge well but had never seen its twin, and was very excited, insisting that she do the driving because she loved cruising her fine big saloon down the M6 and M1, and because  I, Joe, didn’t like the busy motorway and so would try to take us there by B roads and even C roads, and even across open fields, and would take at least a month. Such acquiescence and her excitement were spontaneous and delightful, but on those nights I was alone I could sometimes hear Joanie the therapist whispering shrewd advice into my ear, an imaginary monologue that is, as opposed to that of immaterial Wilfred the supernatural harbinger.

“Have you considered,” she confided one warm night, as I lay in bed, “that Maggie Binding is one end, one quarter of a very weak and four-pronged and self-sustaining soap opera? She unites with Alfie the other rejected marital victim, so they are two people naively thinking that two hurt souls make one strong one, and that licking their wounds together will make for unity. The truth is every time they look at each other, whether in bed or at the dinner table, or at the supermarket cheese counter, they are subconsciously reminded of their ugly rejection and the tragic end of their lengthy marriages. Thus Maggie Binding whenever she sees Alfie Gray unknowingly reverts to the nightmare of Joseph Binding going off with Laura Gray, and the hurt and the anger and the vertigo and the madness are instantly replayed albeit at reduced intensity. Wasn’t it last night she told you that when Joseph left her, he gave her a literal gagging order, insisting that he wanted nil discussion whatever about his departure, neither in person nor on the phone?  He abruptly abandoned Maggie and left her in a frantic torment, but she was strictly forbidden to contact him by text or email or even by a postcard. Ditto for what you see is what you get Alfie Gray, whenever that is his eyes settle on Maggie, a woman on whom he is hooked, though she is obviously not hooked on him…all he can see is his desertion as caused by her bastard of a husband, and it is played over and over again. They thus spend their lives perpetually obsessing about what they suffered and what cannot be remedied nor reversed, because the new partner they have chosen is one quarter of that four-pronged and never-ending melodrama. They cannot give up on it as it is an itch they must scratch, and the more they scratch it the more they obsess. And you, reckless Joe Soap, are walking into all that with your eyes wide open? Don’t you agree that although she is still very beautiful and very sweet natured, she is also at bottom still rather stupid and addicted to low grade cliche? What was that dismal Rotary Club argot she came out with the other night, when she mentioned meeting up with her best friend from her home village? They sat there in the Workington pub and they argued until they put the world to rights? And, fair enough, though she doesn’t perpetually babble any more like she used to, she still has the capacity to fizzle and bubble and effervesce when it comes to supposedly intimate relationships? What is it she says about Alfie? He is a shoulder to cry on and what she finds so reassuring is that he is always there for her? But surely, you might tell her, Joe, the same is true of a faithful dog or even a cat. Meanwhile she has left him once for a whole year and has even fucked off to Africa to get away from Alfie, and would like to fuck off again from the rabid little telly shouter if the college would only let her.”

I tried to focus on Joanie’s measured analysis and her always sage advice, but my eyes just grew heavier and heavier. All I saw was the supernal sweetness of Maggie’s face, the tiny freckles, the hair that was fairer than a dream or a wisp of gold. And then we had our rapturous and hallucinatory weekend in Oxford, where we walked on pure air and the levitation was of a piece with the intense summer sunshine, and the benign and sometimes overwhelming approval that followed us wherever we went. The overweight and asthmatic receptionist in the Abingdon Road hotel gazed at us with stunned admiration and gave us her silent blessing. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to see she thought we were made for each other from the birth of time, and had either been married thirty years or were both widowed and about to re-wed. Everywhere we went we received the reverential benediction of strangers, including from those a third our age. In a dusty pub in downtown Jericho with only half a dozen teenagers lurking in the corner, we were feted as minor royalty. The kids had a beautiful little mongrel pup called Jessie, and Maggie lifted it up and kissed it and commenced a whole one act drama with the animal where she played both parts, and its owners were filled with an astounded pride. They could see that we revered them for having a perfect little pup, and they had forgotten all about or possibly never known the business of reverence. We talked to them for a full half hour about dogs and dogs’ names and their jobs and their favourite bands, and their recommendations for pubs, breakfast cafes and Indian and Chinese restaurants, even though I’d already noticed that my favourites in Walton Street still stood shamelessly and even lustfully where they had had been back in 1973, exactly forty years ago.

Walton Street is a self-effacing village paradise, that has amongst its choicer assets a bookshop stuffed with translations of world literature in fine US imprints, as well as offering the best Colombian coffee, plus a long haired and handsome proprietor who knows more about cosmopolitan literature than some tenured professor. Even he, dry and circumspect as he was, smiled approvingly at the sight of the striking couple. Walton Street also has a tandoori where the fish jalfrezi is of such an order, that we paused to rhapsodise to the waiter who hurried to inform the chef that both of us had nominated it as the best meal of our lives.  The Sylhet cook came out to shake our hands and I used my few sentences of Bengali (apani keman achen? tumi kothay thaken?) to extend our euphoria. This was lunchtime rather than dinner so that afterwards we chose to go to the nearby cinema to watch a very recent American release A Late Quartet, about which we knew absolutely nothing.

We held hands in the back row and Maggie sniffed and wept throughout and for very good reason. It is a nigh perfect story of a virtuoso New York string quartet catastrophically riven when its leader, played by Christopher Walken, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Once Walken has the news and starts to do exhausting gym exercises to fend off the worst, his face is of such subdued and humble melancholy, my throat began to tighten, and Maggie buried her face and quietly sobbed. Another quartet member, Philip Seymour Hoffman, then starts an affair with an opera singer he meets jogging in the park, and the morning after they’ve slept together, his wife, also of the quartet, comes across them in a city café. There is no proof that they are lovers, but his wife who he feels has neglected him for years, knows it surer than death itself, and she stalks off leaving Hoffman crushed and direly abandoned. Confronted in his post-coital and polluted absurdity, his face when he first makes feebly lying excuses…is a masterly frieze of anguished and inane embarrassment. Maggie Binding wept at that too and we both knew why, as it made her think of her poisoned marriage and of Joseph and Laura’s seedy alliance and of his completely heartless desertion of her and the kids. Not only had she been abandoned but condemned to total silence, to mute and irremediable suffering, to an outrageous petrifaction enforced by her loving husband of twenty years. Back on the screen, the bleak dynamics of adultery had accelerated at a dizzy rate, as the fourth member, a very morose and middle-aged Israeli, busy instructing Hoffman’s daughter in the cello, conceives an infatuation for someone less than half his age. Hoffman soon finds out and attempts to beat the sugar daddy to a pulp, but very soon the fickle daughter discards her sombre tutor regardless. At each of these harrowing nodes of betrayal, revenge, rage and grief, Maggie wept and shook and squeezed my hand and more than once lifted her face to be kissed and even once sank her tongue into my yearning and yes definitely now loving mouth.

After the exalted weekend we met twice more, and two days before I set off for Greece, she was there at an uproarious goodbye party for about twenty of my oldest friends. I had after sly deliberation chosen the same venue where she and I had first dated, the Maryport Shah Jahan. It was tacitly understood that now it was I, not Maggie, who was defiantly running the risk of Alfie walking in here for his bilious take-away feast of chicken path-ear with rice, nan and chips. She and I had shared a hilariously rude bath in the beautiful Oxford hotel where she had talked about ditching him for good, and continuing a two-countries relationship with Joe Lawless. Maggie had also revealed our affair to her children, both of whom lived in South London. Sandy who was an accountant, was all for our romance, as she thought Alfie was an appalling case of her mother aiming far too low, not least because he was clearly much more of a child than a grown up. Aside from rabid football fans, only stupid kids and pitiful nutcases shouted at the telly with a can of Stella Artois flailing in their hand. Her son Joseph aged thirty was an affluent stockbroker who had obviously assumed the role of paterfamilias, for he liked to give his mother advice in the form of bluff didactic instruction just like the other Joseph Binding. Even though he despised Alfie, he informed Maggie that her behaviour was clearly deceitful, and unfair to her faithful partner of fifteen years. I said nothing to Maggie but assumed that as a speculator he automatically favoured a steady tradesman over a freelance bits and pieces journalist about to migrate to ramshackle Greece. Maggie had already passed on some of his cogent wisdom, such as anyone in Great Britain who wanted work could find it, and to be unemployed longer than three days for whatever reason was more or less a crime. l let her see my disgust and waited to see her kick that brainlessness into the grass, but it didn’t happen. Indeed I saw, but did not wish to see, that she was as docile towards domineering Joseph Junior as she had been towards her bullying little husband…those same two Josephs who twenty years ago had cracked conspiratorial jokes about her beautiful backside being like a drooping blancmange,

It was the last time I saw her before I took the flight to Athens. She was scheduled to come out to Kalamos in October, but on my last day in England was obliged to host a massive barbecue for visiting friends. They were only here for three days and it had been planned long ago, and even if she’d had flu or worse it could not be cancelled.

She put her face against my shoulder. “I don’t want to be with them. I want to be with you. That’s all I ever want now.”

The next evening, just before her barbecue started, she left a message on my phone which I still have to this day.

You’ve changed my life completely. You’ve taken me seriously in a way that no one else has ever done, absolutely no one, not just hopeless, horrible Joseph. You are also very tender and very caring and treat me with such patience and are always giving. You give, give, give, to me, not just all your presents of music and books and wine, but of yourself, of the whole of yourself, every last corner and every last atom of yourself. I’ve simply never known that, and it has felt such a wondrous luxury. I wanted to tell you how grateful I am and how pleased that I met you that sunny day in Maryport and what fantastically lovely times we have had together. Bon voyage and all my tenderest love to you. Maggie

 A month later when I was in Kalamos she sent me an email confessing something very different from that last will and testimony…

Alfie, it so happened, had come across a Kalamos picture postcard I’d sent her, with such barely disguised indications of molten passion, that even his unseeing eyes were opened, and worse than that, Maggie had run out of lies to give him. They had then had a truly terrible night of inquisition and interrogation, of sobbing grief and weeping anger, of wretched black despair, and finally of…and finally… and blessedly of (and I her secret lover was so hopeful of what would come next) …

Of reconciliation…

Reconciliation? Of the Beauty and the Beast? Of the Physicist and the Plumber, both of whom deal with forces, torques and resolutions? Of the woman of no opinions and the man of nothing but opinions. I read the email three times but it had only one interpretation and that felt queerly allied to Death and the end of all possible things. I was direly poleaxed, in other words. I was like a ship that had hit an enormous hidden rock, and felt itself to be sinking into oblivion. And even though I was supposedly alive, I was also in another new and inhospitable world…meaning that in common currency I was more or less dead.

Maggie realised, she wrote, that she really loved Alfie Gray, that she loved him heart and soul, and always had done, and whatever she had said to me about the two of them had been a twisted sort of lie. Her feelings for me amounted to more or less nothing and always had been, no matter what she might have said to me in idle moments. The outcome (I guffawed wildly at the cuteness of her jargon) was clear. She wished me well in every possible way, but she also insisted on no more emails, texts, phone calls, no postcards, no letters nor presents nor anything else from Greece. If I ignored what she was asking, and attempted to communicate in writing, she would show anything I had sent to Alfie, and if I phoned her at her home she would simply put the receiver down. She would also block my number on her mobile. Any letters bearing Greek stamps she would throw on the fire unopened.

You may imagine what it is like to be bludgeoned before being poleaxed, or an ocean-going liner confronting a cliff face full on, so I will not labour the immediate nor the delayed reaction that followed. Though that night, thank God, Joanie was there at hand, as confidently expected, and as focused companion in my melancholy bedroom…

“I can see you’re in great pain at the moment. But you also know as well as I do that you’re well out of it, as it was a terrible inferno in the making. The pain will go before too long, and you’ll be able to start again and without the treacherous fissures you found when you went after Maggie Binding . First of all, you were selectively and uncharacteristically deaf, I noticed, when it came to basic self-protection. For a journalist you didn’t even acknowledge the importance of words, and that you and her appalling ex-husband and her bullying stockbroker son, all had the same fucking name! No one ever calls you Joseph, of course, even if you were christened so, but time and again Maggie would talk about her husband Joe and her son as Joe, and you simply didn’t notice. So it is that you have the same toxic handle as two stiff-necked and pathetic chauvinists, Joe Senior and Joe Junior, one of whom abandoned her and one of whom likes to do the opposite and control and patronise her as if she is an overgrown child. You her lover were by contrast gentle, sensitive and caring, and an egalitarian, and you took her seriously as an adult and not an infant. She loved that in you quite rightly, and added that she wasn’t used to it. But sadly for you and her, Maggie Binding is chronically short on insight and when things got hot and even dozy old Alfie was able to find her out in her lies, what did she do? She reverted to type and she panicked and ran for the safety exit. In standard casebook therapeutic terms, she did to you what had been done to her. She like you is gentle and sensitive and fair-minded, so effectively in the mathematics meaning the algebra of therapy, you and her are the same. You are the symbolic mirror of Maggie Binding and Maggie is likewise the symbolic twin of you. Joe her husband, as you know, not only crudely abandoned her, but bound and gagged her and forbade all communication other than through solicitors. For good measure he also abandoned his kids including the future Joe Stockbroker who is fool enough in adulthood to ape his Dad in many ways. So just as Joe Husband fucked off and cruelly stopped all contact with Maggie, so Maggie, now taking the vicarious part of the same insensitive bastard, acts out her abandonment by inflicting the same on you. For you are her, you are Maggie, the gentle and sensitive one who was treated like dirt by her husband, and for cathartic purposes she is simply doing to you what was done to her. Just as Joe Husband commanded complete silence from her fifteen years ago, you who are her mirror image may not email, text nor write to her, nor may you ring her to talk things through, which is what she would have permitted had she been an adult instead of an immature and silly little girl i.e. exactly what those slobs around her have always made of her.”

I knew that she had more to say and I waited with my fingers apparently crossed.

“One more thing, Joe Soap. You should have resorted to shrewd common sense before you embarked on your reckless adventure. Once upon a time, an outstandingly sharp and insightful and no-nonsense person, someone I admired enormously, said to me something that has always stuck in my mind. He said if ever you hear someone who is English recalling a pub conversation where they and their chums were busy ‘putting the world to rights’ you must avoid that someone like the plague. Because, he added, anyone not a decerebrated Rotarian who talks like a decerebrated Rotarian, is even worse than a decerebrated Rotarian, and that is some mean fucking feat…”

I asked her, meaning I spoke aloud to the fresh air in my bedroom: “Who was it said that?”

Joanie sighed protectively, and just then it was as if she was patting my head. “It was you, Joe Soap, said that. It was you and no one else said it.”



Chapter 2 appears tomorrow Tuesday 30th January


or Online Dating For The Hard of Hearing




‘One of the best comic writers we’ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O’ Brien’

JONATHAN COE, The Observer

‘One of my favourite writers’

DJ TAYLOR, The Guardian



It is 2014 and Joe Lawless is a foreign correspondent who has retired to Kalamos island, Greece. One night in the small hours his great-uncle Wilfred who has been dead since 1965 turns up in his bedroom on an urgent mission. Having passed beyond and also having acute supernatural powers Wilfred is able to tell him that before long Joe’s daughter Sarah will put her widowed Dad on the UK dating agency He has come to warn Joe that the search for lasting love will not be easy and among the Lovebirds clients there are certain women with unusual and idiosyncratic agendas. These range from being shaman initiates, to a lady with a one-eyed singing parrot, to the yoga practitioners who listen to the radio with an unexpected part of their anatomy, to the Desert Island Discs addict who has a profound erotic addiction to the legendary show.


Her life was almost her only possession and she was as tender with it as a mother with a defective child: there was no doubt it would improve, the miracle would happen and, meanwhile, there were the smaller ones such as this chance to rove at her will through Upper Radstowe… and find the real country where the wind smelt of apples and damp moss.

Miss Mole by EH Young



Great-uncle Wilfred Comes With Two Warnings

It was a very warm and pleasant evening in June 2014 and having read to the end of my book, a powerful and exceptionally perceptive novel by M Francois Mauriac, I went to bed early and slept like a log until around three in the morning. I then awoke with an extremely violent start and a decidedly dramatic snort in my spacious and usually restful bedroom, sat up sharply on my elbows, and without all that much astonishment, much less any panic, beheld my first ever ghost in the form of my long dead Uncle Wilfred…

First of all, and to set the improbable scene, it was pitch dark in my bedroom with only a tiny amount of illumination coming from the backstreet of the port of the small and obscure Greek island Kalamos to which I had just moved from my native England. Secondly Uncle Wilfred’s perennially lugubrious and ironic visage and the rest of his squat little body was illumined by what appeared to be an inner green light, which seemed to be of the identical hue and quality of that you usually find emanating from very cheap Christmas tree lights, such as once could handily be purchased from the now sadly defunct high street Woolworths.

Wilfred Lawless, so aptly named, was not in fact my uncle but my great-uncle, my paternal granddad’s youngest brother and the black sheep of the family without a doubt. Born in West Cumberland in 1877, meaning eight years older than DH Lawrence of whom he was an outspoken admirer, he died in 1965 in Co Kerry, Ireland when I was fifteen years old and had just left him after a week’s unchaperoned holiday at his Ballyferriter mansion. You can judge of his genial laxity that on arrival he presented me with enough Carroll’s Sweet Afton (untipped) cigarettes to last me for the week and indicated his copious and connoisseurial wine collection on the mahogany sideboard and said to help myself whenever I needed some tonic as he called it. He also offered me a spare hip flask beautifully chased with silver and full of Jamieson’s but even I baulked at that, as only once had I tried raw spirits and they had appeared to be coming out of both my ears and eyes and even my arse as I coughed and choked and swore and spat…

“It’s myself,” the spectre croaked at me ungrammatically.

Wilfred sat there at the end of my bed, apart from the green light looking exactly as he did when I last saw him nearly half a century ago. He had a crumpled tweed jacket covered in numerous queer little bits of white fluff, a crumpled black waistcoat with a gleaming little pocket watch inside of it, green cords that were baggy and slack, brown brogues where one was brightly polished but bizarrely the other one was dusty and very much smeared. In 1965 he had been 88 but he was one of those men who both in my own experience (I met him first in 1955 when I was five) and from what I have seen of him in certain ancient daguerrotypes, always looked the same unflagging age throughout his life. Thus, when he was five years old and prominent on a Victorian family photograph, he had a comical sternness to his infant’s expression which was no different from when he was a sagacious if contrary octogenarian, nor on my previous visit to Kerry when he was a relative stripling of seventy-eight. He was one of those adults who looked like his baby imago stretched and expanded to an adult twin…and one of those infants who look like the aged sceptic and cynic in mesmerising homunculus guise.

After a considerable silence I thought it was time to make some civil conversation. I said: “Uncle Wilfred. You look very green under that light.”

He blinked a couple of times like an old barn owl and then cleared his throat which of course an owl would not have done. Then to my amazement he brought out what looked like an already ignited Sweet Afton and started to puff at it with a pensive if weary calm.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s myself alright. And I am here on urgent business. Bugger me, Joe Soap, but this is a very serious case. A hell of a bloody thing, believe me.”

Joe Soap had been his special affectionate nickname for me, and over the years it had caught on with certain of my closest friends. His inflections were North West English with a Gaeltachd lilt for he had moved to Irish-speaking Kerry at the age of thirty in the summer of 1907, having given up an Oxford All Souls Fellowship where he had researched in Oriental languages and Oriental philosophy, specialising in those written in Arabic, Coptic and Armenian. Perhaps equally significantly, six months earlier, January 26, 1907 had seen the first performance of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, set in somewhere like rural Kerry, where the puritanical Dublin audience had gone berserk and wrecked the joint when they heard unseemly reference in the play to a respectable Irish peasant woman parading around in her shift! To a certain extent then, as he later explained, Wilfred Lawless had desired in, however idiosyncratic a way, to reverse that primitive and risibly prudish trend in Ireland, by doing his bit apropos shedding idiotic inhibitions and resisting sundry obnoxious clerical tyrannies. That apart, in 1965 he had told me that sixty years earlier Oxford was a living death, no, not the research, no that was great stuff, that was a gas, but he despised the vintage Madeira and Gentleman’s Relish bachelor milieu of fustian All Souls where no one was obliged to teach, and they could simply research away, meaning they could endlessly lucubrate, and publish as much or as little as they liked. What’s more, he had inherited a colossal packet from his favourite and equally deplorable uncle, my great-great-uncle Leonard (Lenny the Roaring Lion) Lawless, owner of a vast Ceylonese tea plantation who had managed, before reaching the age of thirty, to annex himself a whole harem of nubile Tamil and Singhalese women, as well as some muscly and lusty tribal ladies from the fabled Andaman Islands.

And, of course, he also did things in reverse when it came to the usual direction of immigration, once he had bought himself that majestic property in Ballyferriter on the remote Dingle Peninsula with its ten bedrooms and a manorial garden full of fruit trees, plus a monumental greenhouse heaving with exotic oriental shrubs. For strategic purposes he had made sure he was handy for the Anglo-Irish set whom he soon alienated by eschewing with no small scorn and numerous expletives, their view halloo fox hunting. But he had so much money and they had so many unmarried daughters, for the first time in his life he found himself delightfully immune and automatically untouchable no matter what he did or omitted to do. He immediately announced  himself a dyed in the wool Protestant for convenience sake, as he had no wish for some importunate priest to come round pointing his finger at his rumoured licence, nor at the curious single theme topiary of his hedges which was let us say affectionately risque rather than lewd, with their depictions of curved and voluptuous possibly classical Greek damsels’ bosoms and backsides, which though made out of unsensuous privet, set me the fifteen-year-old thinking with a hot complexion and determined eyes about this business of love and of attractive young girls.

“You are in serious danger on two scores, Joe Lawless, Joe Soap, always my favourite nephew. You were as you know the apple of my avuncular eye when I was, what’s that unhappily inaccurate word? alive. The first danger might arguably be taken to be on the trivial side, but the second one most certainly is not.”

I tried to feel anxious at his words, but looking at his paltry snot green illumination, and despite myself, I could not.

“The first one concerns the largest of the supermarkets in the port of this very queer little Greek island…”

I gawped at him. “You mean there might be some poisonous bacilli lurking in the kefalotyri cheese?” And then dozily racking my brains. “Or that some of the aubergines were seen growing rather close to a defunct lead mine on the mainland?”

“Not at all. I’ll give you a handy hint though, as it relates to those specific shopping aisles where you, Joe Soap, like to dither and hover the most….”

I twitched and squeaked, “You mean the biscuits?”

“Exactly! The biscuits and opposite those the equally charismatic herbs and spices. Like me you are a bugger of an enthusiastic cook, and like me, though seventy odd years later, you were born in unspeakable West Cumberland where spices and herbs are even now largely unknown. You, like I, were raised on overcooked and stringy meat and boiled potatoes and sodden carrots and that alone, and without a sniff of rosemary or a whiff of basil or a hint of cinnamon or a trace of clove. So it is that you have deliberately transformed yourself and matured, as did I, to a cosmopolitan connoisseur, because for both of us the scent of spices indicates the exotic, the foreign, the mysterious, the poetic and even the sublime, all that is the patent antithesis of our suffocating feckin homeland.”

I stared at him and like a naïve and literal-minded schoolboy wondered how the hell he could know what I did when I went poking in the big island supermarket. Had he been studiously gawking at yards and yards of their security cameras now that he had relocated to the other realm?

“And yet, Joe Lawless,” he said with a scowl, “you are still a typical product of that hopeless and claustrophobic little province. You are you know, despite yourself, admit it!”

I glared at him with ill-masked resentment, as he added: “You are a horrendous bloody biscuit fiend, admit it! As indeed was I all the way through my allotted time on earth. Raised in an area of permanently grey skies, of redundant and failing coal mines, of massive but ill-constructed and inhospitable docks, in an innately melancholy and helplessly morose milieu, you did what anyone else would have done and you turned to sugar! As a child you ravenously stuffed yourself like some opium addict with sweets and chocolates whenever you had any pocket money, and inside the parental house you wolfed down the packets of fig rolls and ginger snaps as if being pursued by your sworn homicidal enemies who apparently were after your, let’s face it, objectively innocent ten-year-old blood.”

I waited for him to elaborate, but he took on a dry and weary expression and began sucking pensively at his Sweet Afton.

“So,” I snapped at him. “What is this terrible hazard I must avoid in the supermarket?”

He grunted and knocked the ash off his fag and to my amazement it simply shot back into the cigarette and kept on doing so for the rest of our dialogue. You don’t need too much of a refined visual imagination to conclude that the Sweet Afton never got any shorter and would seem to have been turned into an eternal indeed transcendental puff so to speak.

“The Papodopoulos Lemon Creams! You get through two feckin packets a day do you not! When you’re sipping cheap red wine and watching your arthouse foreign films at night, on your whatsit, your hotpot…?”

“On my what?”

“Your doings. The thing everyone has these days, like a TV, just as I once had when I watched the Telefis Eireann in Kerry back in the Sixties. It’s like a briefcase as well as a goggle box, and feck knows why you choose to call it a hotpot.”

I struggled to restrain my derision. “I believe you mean a laptop, Uncle Wilfred.”

“Is that a fact? I thought that was a type of naked and shameless style of dancing by certain lissom young women.”

“No no. A laptop is a small and portable computer and recall that they had computers even in the 1960s in Irish university engineering departments, though they were true enough the size of a small Wicklow village. They are called laptops as they are very compact and hence can be sat on your lap. You are also confusing laptop with lap dancing where the naked women often sit on the drooling spectators’ laps, and especially should they be cheerily waggling a twenty pound note and inserting it between their outsize breasts.”

“Do they now? That sounds a beguiling little item of anthropology if ever there was. Well, talking of laps, I’m also talking about bloody Lapland for that matter, meaning just call me Father Christmas as far as you are concerned, Joe Soap, an avuncular Santa who is here to save your bacon. Tomorrow my boy when you go in the supermarket you will see to your amazement a swaggering new species of biscuit stacked next to the Lemons whose packets are a slightly lighter shade of yellow, as a result of which the two look damn near identical. Let us for convenience sake call these shifty and suspicious inroaders Pseudo Papadopoulos Lemons or Fool’s Papadopoulos Lemons. They have the gall to describe themselves as Papadopoulos Fruits (frouto) but I took one of my necessarily incorporeal bites and damn me they taste like something a geriatric dog might have sicked up.  Lemons my buttocks and fruit my hairy backside, they taste like grated turnips and carrots all mixed and slowly infused in last year’s paraffin…”

Something quite untoward happened at that point. I hadn’t smoked cigarettes for forty-seven years but just then felt sorely tempted to ask old Lawless for a spectral Sweet Afton, just to see what they tasted like, and also to see the magically subliming ash whizz back into the parent fag.

“You look a mite distracted, you young oaf. I trust you realise I am not just talking about feckin biscuits!”

I offered him a mutedly combative expression which made him even more irritated.

“Listen hard, Joe Soap. You should be aware that you pleased me very much in 1970, five years after I snuffed it, when you went up to Oxford and did Oriental Studies like myself seventy years earlier. You went and took on Sanskrit, ‘the adorned language’, no mean feat I would say, and you also took a commendable shot at Avestan and Old Persian.”

I sighed impatiently. “Very true. But what has that to do with the Papadop Lemons or the Fools’ Pseudo Lemons?”

His eyeballs expanded alarmingly under their algae-coloured illumination. Then he roared at me: “Everything you buffoon! The real thing versus the bogus thing, don’t you get it? And especially when the two of them look so close to being identical twins. The one thing being authentically delightful and the other being thoroughly ersatz and abhorrent. Bugger me, you went and took a stab at Indian philosophy didn’t you, and read up on Advaita and Vishista Advaita and the Nyaya Vaisheshika and Purva Mimamsa and the Samkhya and all the rest of those boys. Can’t you see, you overgrown clod, what it is that I’m driving at?”

I grunted wearily, “All I know is that I believe you when it comes to biscuits, and I’ll lay off the Fool’s Lemons tomorrow. I have very subtle taste buds Uncle Wilf and…”

“Pah, you bloody trifling clown. Sit up straight and cudgel your brains and just think back to your Oxford studies. In Vedanta, what do they talk about when they discuss epistemology, meaning the nature of knowledge? Go on, tell me. No, well I’ll tell you. The snake and the rope! The bloody old snake and the bastard old rope, Joe Soap!”

I smiled at his unintended rhyme and even added an affected yawn, just to stir his ire a little more. It was after all three in the morning.

“If let us say you, Mr Soap, think that a distant object is a snake when actually it is a rope, you may look a bit of a fool as you teeter nervously by, but no harm is done in the long run. But supposing instead you be an incautious novice, as you most surely are by what I’ve seen to date, and even perhaps a little drunk on this particular day. If then you were to saunter up and pick up what you think is a rope and it should prove to your horror to be a feckin hissing viper, then what? Inanition, paralysis, even death, albeit and because there are no lethal snakes on your little Greek island, a Pseudo Death or a Fool’s Death, just like the Papadopoulos Fruits. Listen to me, son. The Shitey Creams versus the Lemon Creams are just a pithy parable or a vivid allegory prepared for you by the Man in Charge up there. They are there to instruct and forewarn. Avoid those verminous Papodopoulos Fruits tomorrow, but far more important, you should watch your back when it comes to some truly catastrophic hazards looming over your ignorant head over the next few years!”

I found myself frowning sceptically at his pouting vehemence, while also faintly alarmed by it. In any event I hadn’t a clue about the lethal hazard he was referring to…

“I can see I need to speak clearly, as if to an infant or to an adult who is a proven dolt. You would seem to function as both of those for much of the time, despite your sharpish brains, and their far too intermittent cognitive and conative astuteness.”

I made an impudent clicking noise with my tongue. “Flattery from you, Uncle Wilfred. Now there’s a memorable novelty…”

He stormed at me: “Bloody women! Bloody women, man! Don’t you see? Both woman as understood in the seemingly harmless singular, or when they genially refer to them as a group or a genus or a bevy of females. In Sanskrit, as you know, a plurality of women is called strijana. My own addiction to provincial Irish strijana proved my frequently sorry downfall, as well as often being my greatest blessing in every sense. On those one or two miraculous occasions when I hit the romantic button on the head, that is. But you, Joe Soap, if you don’t watch it you will end up wallowing helplessly in a species of rancorous shite that will make the taste of Papadopoulos Excremental Fruits seem like ambrosial nectar or the sweetest mead to be sampled in paradise…”

There was a staggered pause as Wilfred Lawless stared me into a kind of awed and far from comfortable submission to his will. And for the first time in nearly half a century, I came close to asking someone for a cigarette, in this case a supernatural one where the ash like hallucinatory Time itself would never dissipate but would eternally renew itself.




The next post will be on or before Sunday 4th February


Three days ago I returned to Greece from a busy fortnight in the UK by taking the bus to Heathrow from Oxford. The service is phenomenal and they go every half hour during the day, almost as if, and it is a strange hallucinatory fantasy, at least three quarters of Oxford is permanently in foreign transit. The driver who was in his mid 50s was a perky, affable, bespectacled bloke with a gentle and respectful banter and I shall call him Reg. As it got to 5 minutes before departure another man about the same age ascended the bus with a coffee in a plastic cup and explained that he had left a burger behind in the bus station cafe, on account of hot food being prohibited on the coaches. Reg advised him he had a few minutes left so why not bash back and bolt it down whereupon the passenger, let us call him Kevin, said no, no he hated bolting his food and in any case it had been downright foolish of him to order the food so close to departure. Kevin then went on in a grave yet markedly lyrical tone to admit he was his own worst enemy and all the fault in this context was his.

I took a sideways look at Kevin and noticed that his default expression was an outwardly sweet smile, a nascent smile that is, indicating a permanent potential amity to all of mankind. He was of slim build and wore matching denim jacket and jeans, both of them black and a good snug fit, something worthy of remark given that plenty of men in their mid 50s have as much dress sense as a prize bulldog. He had only been plonked down 10 seconds in his front seat adjacent to me, when he disclosed to Reg that he too used to be a freelance bus driver based in Oxfordshire but now lived in the Midlands where having taken early retirement he lived on his lodgers’ rents. After selling a one-bedroomed cottage near extortionate Oxford, Kevin had been able to buy a 5-bedroomed house in the Midlands and did Reg know that the first £4800 of those lodgers’ rents was tax free? No Reg didn’t know that and was considerably impressed. Kevin then asked Reg had he experienced deceleration difficulties at such and such a junction between Oxford and Heathrow and before long the pair of them were happily swapping anecdotes about arcane four lane highway dynamics, Reg in a wry and blameless manner and Kevin with a kind of singsong lyricism as if he was performing for an imaginary audience where the audience insisted on pristine and virtuous exposition. Of course, performing like this is usually the province of squashed and oppressed women, as parents tend to prefer their little daughters rather than their burgeoning sons to be squeaky clean and saccharine and compliant, and the technical term for someone where the condition is severe is called having an alterated ego.

Kevin was full of surprises though. He told Reg that he was off to Los Angeles for the weekend to attend a motorbike auction, two in fact, one of which had 1500 bikes for sale. My head swirled as I tried to comprehend the time taken to auction all those bikes and I briefly thought Kevin was lying about the numbers until I decided there must be about 50 auctioneers selling 30 each in some colossal LA warehouse. But Kevin’s real passion he explained was collecting old British bikes to which Reg retorted that he too liked the same things. He had himself for years commuted between London and Oxford by motorbike, but didn’t trust old bikes, however lovable, as their age meant they weren’t safe, were in fact potentially lethal. Kevin beamed and wryly agreed, and as I listened to them zestfully trading motorbike matters, and of course both of them were only interested in ones with huge engines, I decided that in Kevin’s case the interesting thing was the contrast between his macho hobby and his unctuous form monitor approach to human communication. On the one hand he was blameless to a fault with his polite and hygienic, nay antiseptic delivery, and on the other hand he loved to be roaring the highways with a motorbike the size of a race horse, in his tight and fetching leathers and with the associative echoes of monosyllabic and far from polite Marlon Brando. It took me back to some fifteen years ago when Annie and Ione and I would sit in the Country Kitchen cafe, in beautiful Alston, East Cumbria, sited on a favourite motorbike run from Newcastle to Scotland via the North Pennines as viewed via the exquisite landscape between Alston and Brampton. The café was often heaving with 20 or more bikers of both genders, most of them aged between 45 and 65 and all sumptuously accoutred in the priciest leathers and all looking faintly intimidating. But then as you hearkened to their conversation you realised that neither were they anything at all like Marlon Brando, but more like dogged pedants or even soporific clergy as they fulminated at length about such and such a bend near Nenthead and such and such a deceleration that would be required on the next stretch near Slaggyford. As further proof of their total innocuousness if you walked past them to the toilets and your leg was anywhere less than a yard from them they apologised very contritely several times for blocking your route. Later one in the know told me the bulk of them were well paid Newcastle head teachers, solicitors, lawyers, business managers, not the vagabonds or outcasts or anarchists of legend by any means. You needed real money to afford those huge bikes and all those pristine leathers, and like Kevin they were vicariously living the heroic and macho life, whereas the rest of the time they were kow-towing and behaving themselves and would not have said boo to a goose.

Reg then volunteered that he too was going abroad for the weekend. He and his wife and two old friends were heading for a legendary and romantic town they were all visiting for the first time.

“Where is that?” asked Kevin.


“Nice? Oh nice.”

I waited for either of them to chuckle at the sound effects as Kevin definitely hadn’t intended it as a pun, but neither of them noticed it and in Kevin’s case it was evidently because he was perennially itching to be a fount of information.

“When it comes to eating out there I can give you a handy tip. Ask the hostesses on the plane for their recommendations. They go there all the time and they always know all the best eateries.”

At this point I was seriously tempted to intervene in this gripping two hander, with the logic that something like the Rough Guide to France or Lonely Planet would surely have a shrewder take on the range and quality of Nice’s restaurants, than the impressionistic views of exhausted airline employees who spent occasional overnights and never stayed three consecutive days in any place. But wily Kevin stole the limelight then by resorting to the infallible authority of his best beloved.

“My girlfriend used to be a trolley dolly, and she and her colleagues were a mine of information for their customers. They were always giving the passengers expert tips and stopping them getting ripped off in these overpriced brasseries and whatnot.”

For a moment I was genuinely stunned. Believe it or not after half a century of flying I had never once heard that designation ‘trolley dolly’ and even had to take a second or two to work out what it meant. Once I did understand, I saw it all as part of the picture, because surely only someone wonderfully estranged from any abiding personal authenticity could talk about his girlfriend in that facile rhyme enclosed in those cutely demeaning quote marks. Translated in its kindest terms it read ‘an airhead glamour girl who simperingly pushes a food and drinks trolley’ and must surely be one of the most pejorative images available for any woman doing any job on earth. Even a woman bricklayer in one of the poorer states of India, say Bihar, would be less mocked by whatever descriptive shorthand her unfeeling male compatriots threw at her.  Admittedly Kevin was referring to his girlfriend in the past tense and it might well have been that she then had used the same term herself as an ironic jest, as if to drily admit that that was how half the passengers, at least the leering and often boozy males, perceived her. But Kevin here did not speak on the side of his girlfriend, but in the collusive and vicarious impersonal voice of one who neither passes judgement nor does not pass judgement. The saccharine man who had his nascent smile always ready for whatever encounter he chances on next, that same sweet man was also at times a macho motorbike fiend, and if you look at it in terms of mechanics and resolve the force lines  between Kevin qua cheery hale fellow well met, and Kevin qua Marlon Brando, you get the resolution which is Kevin the misogynist who successfully buries his misogyny and only reveals it to his unhappy girlfriend in critical heartrending moments and in random phrases on airport buses as he heads off to LA and his auction of 1500 massive motorbikes.

But why, I can hear you ask, should anyone make such a meal of a timid caricature of a prancing, preening Englishman like Kevin?

For a simple and compelling reason. Just suppose the bilious nightmare that always grinning Kevin had been your Dad for life, or your husband of 20 years, or your industrial line manager for 3 decades, do you really think that you would have lived to tell the tale?


I am going to the UK for a fortnight and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 28th January


1997 was a busy year, and that August Annie, Ione and I enjoyed an atmospheric holiday on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The only thing wrong with 1997 was the ubiquitous phenomenon of the Teletubbies, embarrassingly sweet and sickly TV puppets for little kids that turned into a craze it was impossible to get away from. I mention this because the Caledonian Macbrayne sailor son of the old lady who rented us our cottage on Uist, had 3 small children who turned up one day to play with 8-year-old Ione and the four of them celebrated on a boiling hot day by whacking out the Maltesers and watching the hit show. Ione also wanted to help with the self-catering cooking, so there I was letting her put the Indian spices into the curries I was making, omitting the chili in case she swallowed it like sherbet…and taking judicious care with the turmeric in case my daughter turned irreversibly bright yellow before my eyes. The three of us went hiking along remote roads by Loch Skipport, watched basking seals, and discovered the ruins of an ancient school, where an old shopkeeper, looking emotional behind his thick glasses, had told us he had had his education. It was in the middle of nowhere with not a croft in sight and you wondered at the sheer otherness of other folks’ experiences, and it confirmed for me that to feel a real sense of unpackaged adventure when travelling in the UK the only place to go was the Outer Hebrides. There they still speak a beautiful foreign language and the landscape is so tender and profound that you can forget you are part of the set in aspic British Isles, and indeed are not part of anything, are simply a citizen of the world, and a damn good thing.

It all depends on the weather of course. For all but one day it was lovely and hot, and one Saturday we visited the tiny isle of Eriskay, without a causeway then, so we had to take the boat across from Ludaig on Uist. Everyone knows Eriskay in the context of the hectic 1947 Whisky Galore movie, based on a true story, a film which is far from uproarious in a way that only overacted Ealing comedies can be. In 1941 a boat called The Politician sank with a cargo of 28,000 bottles of malt whisky near Eriskay and vast quantities of hooch were washed ashore, whereupon behold everyone on the film’s Isle of Todday getting immediately joyously legless. In reality some of them were arrested and jailed for theft, and these days the windfall incident is commemorated only in the name of the sole pub on Eriskay, Am Politician. We had a drink there and noted a striking-looking middle-aged woman with lank hair, a trenchant manner and a general poetic disarray who was a Scot but not a local, and she looked as if she spent all her life in the place. Predictably the Hebrides have their fair share of eccentric immigrants and often in the severe winter climate they like the locals resort to booze to stay afloat as it were. Some of the highest consumption of alcohol in the UK is in North Uist, which ironically is largely puritanical Wee Free Presbyterian, as opposed to the laid-back Catholicism that prevails in the marginally less bibulous South Uist.

Two touching things happened involving animals. We walked the length and breadth of Eriskay which takes about fifteen minutes, and observed a rusting Landrover sunk deep into the turf. It was now the apportioned and very comfy home for a dozen hens and there they were happily clucking away and laying eggs onto the straw placed all around the gear stick. Otherwise the reality of Ione being an only child, was thrown into relief when we were driving round North Uist and Benbecula and for want of a sister or a pal she started talking with great earnestness to Bonnie the dog who had made this her second trip to the Outer Isles. Indeed, Ione acted the part of conscientious holiday rep and solemnly informed her with pointed hand, ‘Look Bonnie, there’s a loch over there with a little boat  and a man on it. And look, look there, there’s a shop probably sells Rowntrees’ Pastilles and you like Rowntrees’ Pastilles, Bonnie, don’t you?’

I celebrated my 47th birthday on the 18th of October with a massive party in a little hotel just outside Brampton, North Cumbria. People assumed it must be my 50th and then asked why go wild on your 47th, to which I answered 47 is a prime number and I am in my prime. Present were my North Cumbrian friends but also those from the North East including Panurge’s co-editor David Almond (born 1951) who in a year’s time would make it big with his masterpiece Skellig (subsequently filmed with Tim Roth). David intended Skellig as an adult novel which indeed it is, but his agent saw it as a children’s book (which indeed it also is) and she performed the miracle of selling it in the United States as well as the UK pre-publication. The novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones (born 1954) was also present and gave an expert demonstration of line dancing, the craze of the time. William Palmer (born 1945) is another fine novelist who drank even more than I did that night, and I recall a laughing fit the pair of us had which I have never surpassed since, as I really thought we might dramatically expire through muscular exhaustion.

At the start of December, I received something highly unusual, in the form of an imposing letter with the insignia of the French Presidential Senate on it. To my amazement I had been invited to a reception in Paris where the doyen of Albanian novelists Ismail Kadare (born 1936) was to receive the Legion d’Honneur for his services to literature. Kadare had been in effective exile in Paris after he was made persona non grata by Enver Hoxha’s communist successors, and the bizarre not to say hazardous thing at the time, was that the UK didn’t have a single competent Albanian translator, so his books were translated from Albanian to French (by Jusuf Brioni) and then from French to English. Kadare had been given a demolition job on one of his novels in the London Review of Books, so I had angrily intervened on his behalf with a letter to the journal which true to form they refused to print (the great Karl Miller, its previous editor, always printed critical letters but not so his fearless successors). I sent the letter to his UK publishers who put it into French (Kadare knows no English) then sent it to Paris and that must have been the spur for the generous invitation. I was very excited, of course as was Annie, and even 8-year-old Ione was elated, and I had no notion at that time that she would beat me to it and visit Albania twice(2010 and 2012)  before she and I made it there  together in our excellent month long tour of 2013.


What I Did and Read in 1997 (from my 1997 Diary)

To Crush a Serpent by Yashar Kemal (1923-2015. Turkey’s greatest writer to date, and appallingly, and unlike the gifted Orhan Pamuk, he was never awarded the Nobel Prize)

Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya (1907-1996. The courageous Soviet dissident writer who defended Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov among others)

The Conspiracy by Jaan Kross (1920-2007. Estonia’s best-known writer. He was imprisoned both by the Nazis and the occupying Soviets who sent him to a gulag)

Dona Flor by Jorge Amado (1912-2001. Brazil’s best- known novelist who wrote about the Bahian north and the indigenous Candomble religious culture)

Gabriel’s Lament by Paul Bailey (born 1937. Very fine and very funny novel which was Booker shortlisted in 1986. It is narrated by a gay guy with an appallingly unsympathetic Dad)

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997. Hugely gifted and very funny Czech writer many of whose books were successfully filmed. An over-kind critic, Graeme Rigby, once compared me to the great man)

An Only Child by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. Pen name of Michael O’ Donovan. He was raised in great poverty in Cork with an abusive alcoholic father as described in these 2 poignant memoirs. He is famed for his short stories but also wrote a couple of rarely read novels which I enjoyed)

My Father’s Son by Frank O’ Connor (O’ Connor was mentored by AE Russell but also knew Yeats and Lady Gregory, see below)

Seven Short Plays by Lady Gregory (1852-1932. Co-founder with Yeats of the Abbey Theatre and in her house at Coole Park, Co Galway, one of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Revival. Sadly, these very enjoyable plays, steeped in Irish myth, are rarely performed these days)

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark (1918-2006. I came late to Spark but have read and enjoyed all of her darkly comic novels. A critic I always respected, the late William Scammell, reckoned her short stories weren’t up to much)

A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

Twilight in Italy by D H Lawrence

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje(born 1943. A Canadian writer born in Sri Lanka of  mixed parentage. I very much enjoyed the 1996 film with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche, aside from the interrogation scene involving Nazi Willem Dafoe and a nurse with a scalpel)

A Nail In The Head by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. Stories by the vastly gifted Dublin writer who died tragically young of cancer. Her novels are very funny and original and it should be a legal obligation to read them)

Holy Pictures by Clare Boylan (I have reread this twice recently and Boylan is excellent at writing about barmy improvident fathers, long-suffering mothers and eccentric young daughters, one of whom carries a pet hen everywhere)

Concerning Virgins by Clare Boylan (I met Clare in 2000 when she was giving a reading for Solway Arts, W Cumbria. She was a lovely woman who typically dealt very kindly with a question from the audience by a real pedantic pain in the neck)

Miracles and Wonders by Simon Louvish (Israeli author born Glasgow 1947. Epic imaginative novel, part of the Avram Blok saga, by a writer best known for his biographies of actors e.g. WC Fields and Mae West. I praised this in the Literary Review, in my first ever book review which was written on a manual typewriter)

Romance by Joseph Conrad

The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay (born 1944. Scottish author who I have read a great deal, even though I am not all that keen on her books. A mystery)

When the Mountain Fell by CF Ramuz (1878-1947. Wonderful Swiss Vaudoise writer who will appeal to anyone who likes that other pantheistic genius Jean Giono. He wrote a libretto for Stravinsky and his face is to be found on the 200F Swiss banknote)

Triumph of Death by CF Ramuz

The Disenchanted by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. Naval officer, novelist and Turcophile who has a hill named after him in Istanbul. He is little read these days but his fictionalised memoirs had an influence on Marcel Proust)

The Changeling by Alison Macleod (A very enjoyable 1996 novel about a female pirate. Alison is a Canadian living in the UK since 1987. She teaches fiction at the University of Chichester, and once very kindly made my novel Radio Activity a set text alongside one of Jeanette Winterson’s)

Samuel Belet by CF Ramuz

Moira by Julien Green (1900-1998. Hugely gifted American writer who lived in Paris, wrote mostly in French, and was the first foreigner elected to the Academic Francaise. He is famous for his 4-part autobiography and 19-volume Diary)

Chronicle of Stone by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s best-known writer This 1971 novel is set in Kadare’s birth town of Gjirokaster)

Albanian Spring by Ismail Kadare (fine essays published in 1991, about the situation in Albania that led Kadare to seek political asylum in Paris in 1990. Kadare has long been regarded as one of the strongest international voices against totalitarianism)

The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (his 1978 novel which mixes history with myth. I was reading all this Kadare as I was going to Paris to interview him for the Independent on Sunday as well as attend the Legion d’Honneur ceremony)







The next post will be on or before Sunday 7th January. Happy New Year to all…


Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) by the acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (born 1957) is a road movie like no other. Kaurismaki’s trademark is low key, blackly comic deadpan cinema, usually set among the inarticulate and alienated underclass of Helsinki: dustmen, factory worker women, homeless derelicts living in industrial containers, as well as violent street criminals and their startlingly amoral bosses. Kaurismaki’s influences are reckoned to be Jean-Pierre Melville, Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and just possibly Fassbinder. To my mind he is also intelligible as a kind of Finnish Mike Leigh with more than a hint of Samuel Beckett, who of course was a specialist in silence and bleakly comic anticlimax. Kaurismaki has a fondness for rock and roll soundtracks, and as fertile offshoot to this are his successful English language movies about the cosmopolitan rock band The Leningrad Cowboys, a bunch of eccentric groovers in stiff black suits all with gelled hair quiffs about a foot long. Mato Valtonen (born 1955) is one of the Cowboys, and he also wrote the film scripts, and he stars here in Tatiana in a rather less glamorous role as Valto, a wordless and smileless homeworking tailor (I don’t think there is a masculine version of sempstress). Valto spends all day at his sewing machine, and lives with his stern Mum who typically slaps his face when he pinches her cigarette. As well as chainsmoking, he is also a 5-star coffee addict and glugs cup after cup. Coffee is his only requirement from his Mum and the day they run out and she refuses to go and buy more he is so incensed he sticks her in a cupboard, locks the door and departs for the Post Office on an urgent quest. He also takes all of her money with him.

His PO parcel contains a primitive looking gadget for making coffee inside a car, and his next port of call is the garage where his Russian Volga jalopy is being fixed by an exceedingly shifty mechanic called Reino. Reino is played to perfection by Matti Pelonpaa who tragically died of a heart attack aged only 44 in 1995. Pelonpaa who also worked with Jim Jarmusch, is a Kaurismaki staple and with his thick moustache, greased hair and trademark bleak expression, he is an underdog to outdo all others (significantly, as a film actor he refused to dress up and invariably wore his own clothes). Reino like Valto is a rocker, but whereas the tailor has a kind of integrity in his chainsmoking caffeinated silence, Reino drinks vodka straight from the bottle and is prone to explosive pugnacity. His face is a picture of pensive wiliness when he turns to see Valto coming for his car, and before he hands it over says he would prefer payment first. He evidently knows Valto is a bit thick, as his labour costs are about five times the rest of the bill. Valto hands over the markkas stolen from his Mum and gets into the car, whereupon and without explanation they embark on a directionless road journey. First though, Valto has to start the car and he remarks that it makes more noises than it used to, to which Reino responds that it needs ‘fine tuning’. His notion of that is to lift up the bonnet, tear out two major engine components, and fling them on the ground. Then with the tailor gargling non-stop coffee and the mechanic slurping vodka straight from the bottle, off they go.

Valto makes precisely one non- monosyllabic speech in the entire film, which is to chastise his Mum for the coffee tragedy. Reino by contrast manages all of two monologues longer than a grunt. In his excitement at the start of the journey, he describes getting in a fight while visiting Lapland, meaning knocking a country hick’s face in and chipping his tooth. He had to go back to a Lapland court of course, where he was fined heavily, but, he adds contemptuously, when the court documentation arrived, he used it in the toilet and the rest went to the kid next door to draw on. Otherwise their hypermasculine silence aka quasi-autism, is brought into focus when in a road café they are spotted by two women lugging suitcases and heading for a boat to Tallinn. One, the Estonian Tatiana, is played by Kaurismaki regular Kati Outinen (born 1961) small, fair-haired, pretty, and often passive and melancholy in her roles, but here rather more cheerful, even optimistic. Her friend is a buxom Russian from Alma Ata called Klavdia (played by Kirsi Tykkylainen) who unlike Tatiana knows not a word of Finnish. All four of these heroes chainsmoke and where the men are addicted to coffee and vodka, Klavdia is addicted to putting on make-up, so that all pauses, ennuis and disappointments are solved by taking out her cosmetics and whacking on the slap.

Once they persuade the dozy Finns to take them to the boat, inside the jalopy the women decide to introduce themselves and do so decorously and politely. They then request the men to do the same, whereafter there is an endless silence not so much resounding as written in the stars from the beginning of time. This motif continues as they stop at a bleak and massive wooden shack that turns out to be a country hotel. Even the owner here is monosyllabic and chainsmoking, and she wordlessly gives Reino a pair of pharmacy specs when it is obvious he cannot see the registration form he has to fill in. They book two rooms with two single beds each, and, with the women obediently following after them, without consultation Klavdia enters Valto’s room and Tatiana opts for Reino’s. There anything like tender romance is hard to find as sozzled Reino sits snoozing on a chair while Valto chooses to make his precious suit immaculate by taking a blow-torch to it and then putting it underneath his bedding. The two men go down to dinner but make no invites to their lady guests who simply follow on. Their dinner passes in total silence until suddenly Reino starts eloquently reminiscing to Valto about a bus trip he had abroad where all the guys wanted to look at some ruins. Ruins! he scoffs. And when the bus was full of vodka, and there are plenty of ruins all over Finland in any case!

There is a band playing in the hotel but neither of the Finns wish to dance. The two women twirl together happily enough, and when Reino gruffly announces he is going to bed Tatiana, follows him hopefully. Within seconds he is sprawled on the bed fast asleep, and with his cigarette about to burn the mattress.  Tatiana removes the fag and smokes it herself, then tenderly puts the coverlet over him, turns sideways and, fully dressed, falls asleep. Next door nothing is happening either, and it would seem that romance between these silent Finns and amiable foreigners is an impossibility. Until that is at a piquant moment when they are sat outside the car  for a break, and Tatiana and Reino are adjacent, she suddenly and instinctively rests her head on his shoulder. Instead of running away, basilisk Reino shows signs of something, who knows, it might even be an emotion. Nothing happens for the moment, but eventually and once the women have been put on their boat, Reino and Valto impulsively decide to embark too.

After Klavdia has got on the train to Alma Ata, and Tatiana has reached her incredibly dilapidated Tallinn shack, Reino confounds Valto as much as the coffee addict can be confounded, by saying he is staying there with her. With perfect timing he then calmly announces, I will write. Valto wordlessly shrugs and decides to return home, and when he gets back belatedly recalls that he has locked his Mum in a cupboard for rather a long time. Without greeting, much less talking to his unabashed parent, he releases her from prison,  and resumes his sewing, his chainsmoking and his endless bebbing of consolatory coffee.