The next post will be on or before Friday 8th June


What We Did and I Read in 1999

In early 1999 my wife Annie continued her weekly sessions of chemotherapy, and I went along to the hospital and sat reading the Irishman Walter Macken in the oncology waiting room, while she walked through to be hooked up to the drip. We were blessed inasmuch as she suffered no side effects whatever from the chemo, whereas many women have depressing hair loss and crippling nausea. Her work schedule as a busy consultant trainer carried on as normal, and that year we took two holidays in powerfully contrasting locations. For the August trip we along with 10-year-old Ione opted for a budget fortnight’s camping in our favourite part of Britain, the Scottish Hebrides, and we were lucky enough to have hot and sunny weather throughout. Otherwise that trip was full of surprises, not all of them delightful. We chose to stay on Mull and then its beautiful little satellite, Iona, and thought that lonely Calgary Bay north of Mull’s capital Tobermory would make a good start. It was a boiling hot evening when we arrived and the only place we might have camped was astonishingly teeming with hectic nay feverish Glaswegians. By that I mean there were about a hundred of them at least: kids, parents, grandparents, dogs and maybe one or two cats and budgies, and they were making more joyous noise and racket than if it had been Sauchiehall Street of a Saturday night. Nearly 20 years on, I have no idea what they were doing so far from their usual holiday haunts (e.g. Rothesay or Arran) nor why they were in such mesmerising quantity in such a remote unpeopled place. It is one of those experiences one has that will always be inexplicable and I suppose I am in the end glad that not all things in this baffling and unhinging pageant we call Life can be solved like an easy crossword puzzle.

We drove off at speed to the far west of the island and chose the beautiful hamlet of Uisken which is exactly opposite Iona, and close to the departure port of Fionnphort. Remarkably there was a campsite there and it was the cheapest one in the world, at 10p per person per night with all vehicles free. The reason for the Uisken farmer’s philanthropy was that he offered no facilities whatever other than a freshwater tap and the loan of a spade for excavating a lavatorial hole at a remote point from the tents. Another reason might have been it was plagued with midges to a degree I had never experienced, and which indeed confuted my own determined theory that midges were never to be found near beautiful shell sand and machair such as is found in Uisken. In assembling both tents my face was literally devoured by midges as in some kind of surreal fantasy or symbolic battle and after swearing the worst filth imaginable (Ione was well out of earshot on the beach) I became hysterical and started to laugh at the so-called personality as I understood it of these fearless entomological giants.

I wasn’t laughing the next morning though. We had decided it was easiest for Annie and Ione to share the big tent, and for me to sleep in the small one, but at the age of 48 I impulsively decided that I would lie in my dossbag on the hard ground as I had done with nil effort on Mull in 1975 when I was 24. My wife and daughter slept on an inflatable lilo and Annie urged me to do the same, but I told her it was a test and a proof that I had not aged, for the business of ageing I had decided was both an ontological and optical illusion which ought to be roundly ignored. Needless to say, I awoke crippled with backache and the rest of the day I was comically taking half an hour to descend to rinse the panniers in the little stream and then another half an hour to stand upright. Later we drove to Tobermory and parked up the steep hill and as the 3 of us walked down into the town, I was bent and shuffling like I believed the legendary Old Zip Coon might have been, so that for light relief I started to sing the brainless and of course racist ditty, so that Annie and Ione were helpless with an avowedly sympathetic mirth. Otherwise my wife and I reflected that it ought to have been the child Ione par excellence who loved the adventure of rough camping, washing in a cold Hebridean stream, and our pungently odorous barbecues, whereas, while Annie and I attempted our pioneering Davy Crockett joy, Ione sat stonily in the car for midge-free comfort in order to read her book. She also declared that she would prefer a bar meal in nearby Bunessan to half cooked veggie sausages burnt by supermarket charcoal. After reproving her lack of spirit we eventually decided that we felt much the same ourselves so that we parked the car in Fionnphort (pronounced Finny Fort) and took the boat across to beautiful Iona which at its best is a tender eternal dream and a sacred dream at that, sacred being an anagram of scared, of which state of mind it is the antithesis.

Eventually we found a pleasant bungalow in the centre of the village where the handsome young mother could offer us B and B for 2 nights, and then we could camp on her lawn for the rest of our stay. Ione perked up enormously at the prospect of a bedroom and a telly and was so starved of pals that she befriended the little boy and girl who were 5 and 7, joined in all their games without any embarrassment, and even left us speechless by going along to church where their Mum took them on the Sabbath. As for me I was captivated by the Iona public library, a kind of little old-fashioned school room, which happened to be having a book sale and I picked up an excellent Jean Stafford story collection Bad Characters, which I read the same night.

Florida which we visited in December was a horse of another colour. We went there because Ione wanted to go to Disneyland and because my brother Bryce had moved to Bradenton near Sarasota to start up as a US accountant, whilst keeping his Cumbrian business alive largely via 2-way fax, as remarkably it then was. To be candid though, I am one of those who only likes to go abroad where they speak a foreign language, otherwise I do not feel I am abroad. To summarise, the best thing about America as witnessed in atypical Florida, is the overall friendliness and readiness of everyone to help you. This goes too far the other way however, when it comes to restaurants where the waiters gravely ask you what kind of dressing you want on your green salad, as if it really is a matter of life or death. Ditto whether you want your fried egg over-easy or sunny side up, for to put it plainly who in their right mind gives a shite? Some of the younger waiters were so rigidly punctilious, like clockwork automatons, I laughed at them gently and told them to relax. At that one young man hesitantly stared at me as he tried to work out why on earth I might possibly question his robotic attentiveness, but the more I tried to clarify that I didn’t want him to be my head-nodding slave, the more rigid and uneasy he got. I would have been happy to ask him about his life, his family, his girlfriend, his studies, his interests, anything, but for him it would have been an extraneous and unintelligible language, and above all much of this zealous bell boy alertness is all about earning an essential tip, as the waiter’s basic wage it turns out, is far from generous.

We drove down to the Everglades where alligators and crocodiles stand about in the middle of nowhere like leery and unfoolable off duty policemen. We also passed by signs for Dade County Prison, where not many years before they would have been regularly executing people by electric chair, a very queasy reflection, for it must be one of the ugliest and cruellest and truly torturous means of killing anyone, and especially given that it is done by forethought and due process. I often think supporters of capital punishment are far worse than even the worst murderer, as the latter is regularly overwhelmed by psychopathic albeit revolting urges, whereas the former are people who think themselves nice and decent folk but in pious cold blood would play God and take away another life as if it was the snuff of a candle.

What I Read in 1999 (from my Reading Diary)

A Void by Georges Perec (1936-1982. The legendary 1969 novel by the playful genius. which incredibly has no letter ‘e’ in it. Note that it took 25 years to be translated into English. Perec’s Jewish mother was killed in the Holocaust and he died aged only 45)

La Testament Francais by Andrei Makhine (born 1957. The 1995 novel of the Russian born French author who has won both the Prix Goncourt and Prix Medicis)

The Troublesome Spring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres (born 1954. One of his Colombian trilogy novels published 1992. With one or two reservations I prefer these very much to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres ( his 1990 Colombian novel)

Lemona’s Tale by Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995. Posthumous 1996 novel of a Nigerian writer and environmental activist hanged with 8 others in a rigged military tribunal trial, for the supposed murder of the Ogoni chiefs. His execution caused international outrage)

The Matriarch by GB Stern ( 1890-1973.Wonderful 1924 novel which appeared along with 4 others in the Matriarch series. Spanning hundreds of years they are all about the ebullient and very prosperous Rakonitz Czelovar family of Hungarian Jewish extraction which settles down in London. Available in Virago Classics)

Losing Battles by Eudora Welty (1909-2001. The 1970 novel of the great Mississippi writer whose 1941 story collection A Curtain of Green is I think one of the finest ever written)

The Photographer’s Wife by Robert Sole (born 1946. Fine 1996 novel by French author of Egyptian origin)

The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte (born 1951. The dashing 1988 novel by a gifted Spanish author and journalist which was turned into a film in 1992)

Senor Viva and the Coca Lord (the 1991 work in the Colombia trilogy. De Bernieres actually worked as a cowboy in Colombia)

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (1908-2000. Fine 1945 novel by one time New Yorker fiction editor)

The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978. The 1954 novel of a writer influenced by TF Powys and who was the lover of the woman poet Valentine Ackland. A one-time member of the communist party she wrote a biography of TH White, author of The Once and Future King,  where she controversially revealed his gayness)

Each Man In His Darkness by Julien Green (1900-1998. The 1960 novel of a hugely gifted American who lived in Paris and wrote mostly in French)

The Story of the Night by Colm Toibin (born 1955. Much praised Co Wexford writer who I have always struggled with and yes the fault is possibly mine. This is his 1996 novel)

The Lone Woman by Bernardo Atxaga (born 1951. Excellent 1996 novel by the best known of Basque writers)

The Farewell Angel by Carmen Maria Gaite (1925-2000. Enjoyable 1999 novel by the celebrated Spanish writer who studied philosophy at Salamanca University)

Darkness Casts No Shadow by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Harrowing and brilliant 1976 novel by Czech Jewish writer who entered Auschwitz when only a teenager)

Jackson’s Dilemma by Iris Murdoch (1919-1999. Her 1995 novel published 2 years before she started with Alzheimer’s and not one of her best. Otherwise and for all her implausibilities, I am a paid up Murdoch fan)

Second Harvest by Jean Giono (1895-1970. One of my all-time favourite authors who hailed from Manosque, Provence. This 1930 novel was turned into a famous Marcel Pagnol film in 1937)

Cecile Among the Pasquiers by Georges Duhamel (1884-1966. Another of my favourite writers and his Pasquiers Chronicles published 1933-1945 are truly addictive)

Suzanne and Joseph by Georges Duhamel (one of the Pasquier Chronicles)

Adventures of Bindle by Herbert Jenkins (1876-1923. The 1919 novel of author and publisher of PG Wodehouse among others. His Bindle character is a kind of WW1 Cockney rogue with a strong line in jingoism and chauvinism but the novels are very enjoyable nonetheless. I was first introduced to Bindle by my brother Bryce in 1966 when he lived in Leeds)

The Death of Ahasuerus by Per Lagerkvist (1891-1954. Swedish novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1951. Ahasuerus was also called The Wandering Jew)

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (born 1949. This 1994 novel is the only book of his I have ever admired, despite the Japanese author’s enormous acclaim. I thought the 1987 Norwegian Wood was really awful for example)

The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch (1919-1999. One of her best and unputdownable novels)

Robinson by Muriel Spark (1918-2006. The 1958 novel of an enormously gifted darkly comic writer capable of extreme and remarkable economy)

Carmen by Prosper Merimee (1803-1870. The famous 1845 novel which Bizet used for his opera of the same name. He was also an important archaeologist. He and Georges Sand collaborated together on various projects but had a single awkward romantic liaison)

Mosaic by GB Stern (another excellent Matriarch novel, see above)

The Relic by Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900. Portugal’s greatest 19th C novelist considered by Zola to be far greater than Flaubert. Like The Sin of Father Amaro, this 1887 novel was thought by some at the time to be blasphemous and sacrilegious)

Kitty and Vergil by Paul Bailey (born 1937. The 1998 novel of the biographer of Cynthia Payne and Quentin Crisp, who was Booker shortlisted with the excellent 1986 Gabriel’s Lament)

The Public Image by Muriel Spark (her 1968 novel shortlisted for the Booker)

The Bandit on the Billiard Table by Alan Ross (1922-2001. An enjoyable travel book about Sardinia published 1954. Ross was legendary editor of the wonderful London Magazine, currently and sadly not a patch on what it was)

Two Days at Aragon by Mollie Keane (1904-1996. Her 1941 novel. She also wrote as MJ Farrell and was rediscovered in 1981 when she had not written anything for decades. She is a wonderfully talented and insightful writer whose only dud was her first book  The Knight of Cheerful Countenance published when she was 21 Nearly all her books are reissued by Virago)

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1835-1910. Published in 1885 this is the first major US work written in vernacular. Critics argue about whether it is guilty or not of racial stereotyping but it certainly uses the word nigger throughout and has over the years been banned in certain US schools)

My Oedipus Complex by Frank O’ Connor (1903-1966. A superb 1963 collection from Ireland’s great short story writer)

Quarantine by Jim Crace (born 1946. This 1997 novel won the Whitbread Prize and is a retelling of the gospel story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by Satan. Jesus is called Gally (derived from Galilee) throughout the book. I really hoped that I would like it, but I gave up half way through)

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961. The 1929 novel of a major talent famous for extreme economy which in some of his books e.g. To Have And Have Not make him read almost as autistic. He was also fond of bullfighting and hunting which means he is very hard work for me at times. One of his 4 wives, Martha Gellhorn, said the only 2 things he could do were writing and drinking, so that when he wasn’t writing he was drunk or heading that way)

A Priest In the House by Emile Zola (1840-1902. Fourth in his epic Rougon Macquart series of novels where he played out his naturalistic ideas of heredity via a linked set of family characters. One of the greatest writers ever, he bravely stood up for the paradigm victim of antisemitism, Dreyfus, and there is good reason to think Zola’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning, due to a blocked flue, was a successful assassination by his fanatical enemies)

Painted Lives by Max Egremont (born 1948. Egremont is a 2nd Baron with an ancestral home in Sussex and is a biographer and a very good novelist)

A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch (her 13th novel published in 1970. Very enjoyable and all about appalling posh people with names like Julius trying to wreck the lives of other people with names like Axel)

Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940. I reread this 1934 novel recently and didn’t think it a patch on The Great Gatsby, the film of which with Robert Redford is one of my all time cinema favourites)

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (this 1952 novel about a Cuban fisherman was one of the reasons cited for awarding him the Nobel Prize in 1954)

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1873-1947. A 1927 novel by the great Frontier novelist which is about the attempt of a Catholic bishop to establish a diocese in New Mexico)

Bad Characters by Jean Stafford (1915-1979. This excellent 1964 collection is by the acclaimed US story writer and novelist who was married to the troubled and troubling poet Robert Lowell in the 1940s. I read it on Iona in August 1999)

The Slide by James Buchan (born 1954. A very good 1991 novel by the grandson of John Buchan, no less. Buchan is a fine writer and deserves to be better known)

Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (born 1949. Very gifted Francophone writer born in the Lebanon. This 1996 novel is about a couple, a Muslim man and a Jewish woman, who become separated during WW2)

Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima (born 1931. Czech Jewish writer who spent his childhood in the infamous Terezin concentration camp. By a miracle both he and his parents survived)

All The Names by Jose Saramago (1922-2010. The dazzling 1997 novel of the massively gifted Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize a year later. He is one of my very favourite writers)

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (his 1937 novel about a Key West fisherman was turned into a famous 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren McCall)

A Bit Off the Map by Angus Wilson (1913-1991. Not much read these days, but I like his early books especially the waspish 1952 Hemlock and After, and this 1957 story collection. I don’t care for his later novels which sadly get ever less waspish. He was an English prof at UEA, Norwich and instrumental in setting up their famous Creative Writing MA)

The Country Wife by William Wycherley (1641-1716. Bawdy and very entertaining Restoration drama which went long unperformed because of its explicit anti-Puritan language. The first syllable of the second word of the title is relevant in this context. It was based on earlier Moliere dramas)

The Rising Tide by Mollie Keane aka MJ Farrell (see above. Everyone should read Mollie Keane/MJ Farrell as she is wonderfully funny, serious, and infinitely original. I hate all the stuff about Anglo Irish fox hunting, but everything else is great)

The Murdered House by Pierre Magnan (1922-2012. Superb French crime writer born Manosque as was Jean Giono of whom he was a great fan. I gave this 1999 novel a 5 star notice in the Literary Review)

The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch (see above. The plot about an uptight schoolmaster in love with an artistic free spirit is bonkers, but I enjoyed this immensely and have read it 3 times)

Out of Place by Edward Said (1935-2003. This is the engaging 1999 memoir of the Palestinian and US academic who wrote the controversial 1978 polemic Orientalism where he decried the patronising and ultimately racist attitudes of certain Western scholars when writing about the East)

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (see above. The 1923 novel of the great US Pioneer writer)

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (her first novel published in 1954 about a writer called Jake. Very enjoyable)

A Good Place to Die by James Buchan (see above re the grandson of John Buchan. His excellent 1997 novel)

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch (one of the few of her novels, nominally about Ireland, that I actually dislike. I usually like her preposterous characters but not these ones)

The Track by Arturo Barea (1897-1957. Volume 2 of his wonderful autobiography trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel. He was a leftist journalist who had to get out of Spain and he moved to the UK in 1939 where he worked for the BBC World Service. He died in Faringdon, Oxon)

The Artist’s Widow by Shena Mackay(born 1944. I have read quite a lot of her books though oddly I don’t actually like them that much. This is her 1998 novel)

Leo the African by Amin Maalouf (see above. Told as the memoir of a Renaissance era traveller Leo Africanus and very well received when published in 1986)

The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (born 1954. The Hungarian writer translated by George Szirtes, known for his melancholy and dystopian novels, some of which have been filmed. This one appeared in 1989. To pronounce his surname is very easy, just try Krishna Hawkeye)

An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch (see above. Very enjoyable. This 1962 novel is all about serial adulterous affairs, typically Murdoch)

A Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago ( see above. A very engaging 42 page fable published 1997, a year before he won the Nobel)

La Batarde by Violette Leduc (1907-1972. The powerful autobiography of a writer whose mother was a servant girl and her father a rich Protestant who refused to acknowledge her. Leduc was admired by Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, and some of her Lesbian writings were censored as late as the mid 1950s)

Iris by John Bayley (1925-2015. Husband of Iris Murdoch and Prof of English at Oxford. This memoir came out in 1998)

October, Eight O’ Clock by Norman Manea (born 1936. Rumanian Jewish writer who spent time in a concentration camp in Fascist Rumania during WW2. Later he was a US professor. This fine collection of stories came out in 1981)

Albanian Spring by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. A very informative account of volatile Albanian politics before the great writer and opponent of totalitarianism claimed political asylum in Paris in 1990)

Vertigo by WG Sebald (1944-2001. His 1990 novel which is partly about Stendhal. The German academic teaching at UEA achieved huge and deserved success in the late 1990s with his original novels and panoptic and often politically astute musings. He died in a car crash after a heart attack)



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