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.