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)






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s