THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

 I am on holiday for 2 weeks and the next post will be on or before Sunday 5th August

THE MIRACLE OF THE UNHAPPY GIRL

A couple of summers ago I was eating in a pub garden in a cathedral town in the UK, when a very striking family group arrived and sat at the far end of the garden. As I was facing them and we were the only customers, I had no other distraction, and I could not be but surprised, touched and even shocked by the young girl among them, who I would say was about 13 or 14 years old, and was wearing a pretty floral dress. She was with a thin moustachioed man about 50, most likely her Dad, and 2 attractive and composed looking women also fiftyish, both with intensely jet-black hair, one of whom might have been her mother and the other her aunt. The girl was frighteningly thin and very tall for her age, so thin I should say she was technically emaciated. My Dad (1915-1992) would have said she looked like a pipe cleaner and he would have been right, and she also looked like a handsome version of that legend of stringy spaghetti dimensions, Olive Oyl, cartoon girlfriend of cartoon Popeye, for as well as being impossibly skinny the girl had fine cheekbones and very delicate and expressive features. The reason why I was moved was that she looked patently and irremediably unhappy. At 13 she was only just leaving childhood and so had many of the touching transparencies of being a child, one of which is not to dissimulate for the comfort of adults. She had a look of itching discomfort, perpetual unease, gnawing inner disruption, and all that seemed of a piece with her startling height and incredible emaciation. She sank her chin on her fists and looked restless and direly melancholy, as if to say why be here as it offers no remedy to my disease, and I was surprised that both women, possible mother and possible aunt, more or less ignored her and chatted desultorily to each other, as if, so to speak, that was the way the girl was and little could be done about it. The thin man was seated next to her and whether her Dad or not, he made only perfunctory conversation and one evident joke which the girl did not even smile at… and otherwise he spent most of the time laughing with the two women.

Deductions come thick and fast in such a stark situation. In a trice I had decided the girl could only be chronically anorexic, and as is well known, anorexia or severe lack of appetite is a serious psychological condition that can reduce someone to a hazardous bag of bones and can even in extremis, prove fatal. After a deduction comes a prediction, and my prediction as I sat there eating my not at all bad vegetable curry and nan, was that the waitress would bring 3 substantial pub meals for the adults and a baby portion of something solid for the girl, or more likely a bowl of soup that she would play with, make soldiers out of the bread accompanying , and then leave the whole lot as a testament to the fact that she would not put the world outside of her, as represented by that garish fetish called food, inside of her pristine and garrisoned self, if only because the alien aliment would rapidly spoil and soil her should she permit it to enter her fastidiously purified world.

Far from it. The waitress arrived with 4 equally whopping meals, all of them pasta dishes, 2 of them with meat, spaghetti bolognaise, and 2 with a tomato sauce aromatic with fresh basil even from this distance. There was also a massive bowl of grated parmesan sited in the middle for all 4 diners. I was confidently expecting her to push her plate away with a baleful even angry revulsion, but was immediately dumbfounded when the tall and skinny girl went from her permafrost of frozen unease to a very animated and youthful smile of innocent rapture. Like any spontaneous adolescent she grinned as she sank her skinny hand deep into the cheese, took a colossal fistful and scattered it vigorously all over the heaping plate of pomodoro pasta. In a trice she had the fork taut in her hand, and as a practised expert, she had the spaghetti’s sauce and parmesan wrapped about it and was shovelling it down as fast as she could go. She went on and on like this, like some ravenous farm labourer from impoverished Sicily circa 1932, bolting down fork after fork of it and scarcely drawing breath. When she did at last permit herself a brief pause, her face showed every sign of genuine happiness, for she had a full and tender smile upon her handsome face, as if somehow the only remedy she knew for the grief of the world was as simple as to enjoy her food, the one inexplicable consolation that never fails even the forgotten and the lost and the frequently speechless amongst us.

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TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

The next post will be on before Thursday 19th July

TAKE TWO WITH ALAN BATES

A friend of mine recently expressed amazement after I told her I went straight from watching the 2003 ITV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the 1978 BBC version of the same novel, as scripted by the celebrated television playwright Dennis Potter (1935-1994). I mean this literally, for there weren’t even 10 minutes, much less an hour’s grace, between the 2 boxed sets of DVDs. Immediately the first one finished with Michael Henchard’s famous and terrible death note, that he wished to be buried in unconsecrated ground and he wanted everyone to forget about him and never to speak of him, literally as the credits rolled, I walked through to get the Potter DVD, stopped in the kitchen to fill up with wine, then sat down and dived straight into Alan Bates selling his wife and baby at the fair.

You probably remember the plot of Casterbridge from the revision notes for your GCSE, GCE or School Certificate English Literature, depending on your venerability. I will try to precis it for you as briefly as possible, but be aware at the start that like true vintage Hardy it is all about unremitting fate, dismally thwarted hopes and hopelessly tragic dead ends, for it is about a man (it is always a man) who is the bound and trussed victim of his uncontrollable moods and temper. Michael Henchard happens to be a trusser himself, a jobbing hay trusser who to earn his bread walks with his wife Susan and babe in arms Elizabeth Jane from farm to farm in a fictionalised Dorset, somewhere around the 1830s. One day they come to a country fair just above Casterbridge and a remarkably rough old woman, who in her thronging tent sells furmity, a kind of sweet porridge concoction, advises Henchard he can always have a pennorth of rum added to it if he wishes. Despite Susan’s protests he has more and more rum until he is very drunk, and in such an evil mood that he offers to auction his wife and baby to anyone will have them. All the rustics around him laugh at his nonsense but he persists in his obnoxious project and eventually and with Susan’s sad agreement, a kindhearted sailor called Newson buys them off him for 5 guineas.

In the original version it is the veteran Alan Bates (1934-2003) plays Henchard, and in the remake it is the gifted Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds (born 1953) who you might have seen in In Bruges as the priest. Both of them are excellent in the part, Bates with his barking, snapping cadences so that every speech he makes is a kind of rat-a-tat attack, even when he is being that rare thing, an amiable individual. Hinds by contrast has more of a stiff and saturnine aggression and he can also do wonderful things with his facial muscles, show a gloom and epic despondency that are beyond words. Bates’s long-suffering Susan is played by Anne Stallybrass (born 1938) best known from The Onedin Line TV series of the early 70s. She is a capable actress but not a brilliant one, and the same is true of Juliet Aubrey (born 1966) who plays Susan in the remake, and who made her name as Dorothea in the 1994 TV version of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. We see Elizabeth Jane as a baby in the furmity scene, and then we fast forward 21 years when mother and daughter are virtually penniless and Susan is trying to track down Henchard. She meets the old furmity woman who is now two decades older at the same fair and learns that Henchard came back to the tent the day after he had sold her, and told her that if ever Susan should turn up at the fair again, to inform her he had moved to Casterbridge.

Meanwhile Henchard has prospered beyond belief since he did his shameful deed. He is the leading grain merchant in Casterbridge and is also the worshipful mayor, notable for the fact he is a teetotaller, for after selling his wife and child he had gone into a church and vowed 21 years of abstinence for his crime. However, he has his trials, for despite his advancement he has suffered recent criticism because of some bad grain he has unwittingly sold. He is as he puts it, a rule of thumb man, not a scientist, which is why the arrival in Casterbridge of the young Scotsman Donald Farfrae is such a godsend as he has enough science to retrieve the bad grain to saleable seconds. Like many a moody and unstable man Henchard finds that he admires his opposite,  the modest and gentle Farfrae, to distraction, and offers him the post of manager and says he can name his price. It is at this point, once we have listened to several dialogue exchanges between this pair, that we realise that the two Farfraes are the weakest thing in both adaptations. In the Potter version we have Jack Galloway who once did jobbing work in TV series like Bergerac and Maigret and here seems well out of his depth. With the surname he has, I’m assuming he is a Scot but his acting is wooden, nervous and without any range or inflection. He is so bad at times, as when Susan craftily arranges a bogus liaison in a barn between Farfrae and her grown daughter Elizabeth Jane, that you feel embarrassed for him, and want to get in there and act instead of him. The Englishman James Purefoy (born 1964) who you might have seen in the cult movie Solomon Kane, is Farfrae to Ciaran Hinds in the remake, and the kindest thing you can say is he is the less bad of the two. His face is more mobile to be sure, but in the scene where he first meets Henchard’s other guilty secret in the form of his rejected lover from the Channel Isles, Lucetta, Purefoy’s mannered flirting and immediate enamourment are done to unconvincing formula.

To elaborate and briskly backtrack. Susan soon makes contact with Henchard in Casterbridge, and at his behest, she tells Elizabeth Jane nothing about his being her father, nor about the time he auctioned his wife and child, but that he is instead a remote relative. As such he discreetly courts Susan and eventually marries her a second time, for the kindly sailor Newson had been lost at sea and hence his wife and daughter’s recent destitution. However, in the intervening 20 bachelor years, on holiday in Jersey, Henchard had met the handsome and respectable Lucetta, she had nursed him  through a sudden and unexpected illness, they had become intimate, and he had promised her eventual marriage. Of course, once Susan turns up, without any scruple he writes to her and says that promise cannot now be fulfilled, just as Henchard throughout the film does everything impulsively, often brutally and with seemingly nil capacity for remorse. As a further wind in the coil and typical of Hardy’s ruthlessly pessimistic plotting, Susan is in poor health and shortly after their marriage she dies. Henchard then takes a deep breath and tells Elizabeth Jane that she is his child after all, and not the child of Mr Newson. In the Potter original Elizabeth Jane is played by Janet Maw (born 1954) principally a radio actor, and capable enough, though not particularly distinguished, for she has a kind of Sunday school virtue about her that weakens her dramatic power. Far superior in the remake is Jodie May (born 1975) who really can act, for at the age of 13 no less, in 1988, she won Best Actress at Cannes for her appearance in A World Apart. When Ciaran Hinds bluffly informs her that he is her real father and Newson a phantom, her grief and absolute desolation are infinitely moving. The next Hardy twist is typically cruel, for in fact Susan had left a sealed note for Henchard which disclosed that the original Elizabeth Jane died shortly after they had parted and that the current one named in her memory, is indeed the child of Newson. At once brittle Henchard loses all affection and is supremely irritable, even downright nasty to this maddening girl who is not after all of his blood. Hinds is particularly impressive when he faces Jodie May after reading her mother’s confession, exhibiting a sort of leaden deadness and sullen absence of feeling after his initial excitement at telling her she was his child.

Meanwhile, having heard of Susan’s death, Lucetta thinks it is fine to turn up anonymously in Casterbridge and have the wrong put right. She is crafty enough to befriend Elizabeth Jane and take her into the house she has rented as her housekeeper and companion, so that that will give Henchard an excuse for visiting her, and thus courting and eventually marrying her. As yet another twist, hitherto Farfrae has shown a romantic interest in Elizabeth Jane, even after Henchard had fallen out with him, had sacked him and forbidden their courtship. But once the Scotsman meets Lucetta the pair of them are immediately smitten and before long they marry in secret, so that this is the third grave injury the man of science has done his erstwhile employer. First, he had shamed Henchard in front of his workmen by upbraiding him for humiliating a gormless labourer called Abel Whittle by sending him off to work minus any trousers as punishment for being late to work. Then he had chosen to organise a party to celebrate a royal anniversary whereupon envious and childish Henchard decided that he would organise a better one. It rained a monsoon on the day, but Farfrae had wisely constructed huge tarpaulin tents to keep his guests dry, whereas Henchard’s festivity was a dismal wash out and everyone was soaked. At that point he vauntingly sacks Farfrae in front of his party guests, forbids his courting Elizabeth Jane, then true to volatile form, once he discovers that she is not his daughter and that he cannot now abide her, he curtly informs the Scotsman he may resume the courtship. But soon after Henchard angrily observes Farfrae through a window, flirting with Lucetta when he is supposed to be looking for Elizabeth Jane, and so is witness of this third and massive affront, the imminent stealing of his hoped-for wife. Aside from all else, without the Scotsman’s guiding hand, Henchard’s business is in chronic disarray and he is counting on selling hay at a huge profit but on a severe miscalculation. He promptly loses a fortune, and as it happens Lucetta has just come into a large inheritance, so that he has lost both her and her fortune to his mortal enemy. Henchard in his desperation tries by crude blackmail to force Lucetta into promising marriage and even requests that Elizabeth Jane be there beside them to witness the promise. But Lucetta gets her young companion to tell her father she must go away for a couple of days restorative holiday and instead in secret she marries Farfrae and the two of them return separately to Casterbridge.

Lucetta in the original version was played by Anna Massey (1937-2011) an actor of great distinction who depicted the Jersey woman’s vulnerability and relative innocence with depth and effortless nuance. In the remake she is portrayed by Polly Walker (born 1966 and best known for her role in the 2002 movie Savage Messiah) who is simply nowhere in the same league. This is true not just when it comes to the extremity of Lucetta’s ultimate and terrible public humiliation, but also when she is chatting about ordinary matters with her companion Jodie May, if only because Walker’s cadences are nothing like 1840s cadences and she could be acting in a contemporary chic drama set in central London. I needed to suspend disbelief and see Lucetta as a frail Hardyesque gentlewoman instead of which I kept seeing Polly Walker rehearsing her lines in a Belsize Park flat, with her phone about to beep half way through. That aside, Michael Henchard is incensed to madness by Lucetta’s betrayal and threatens to expose her with all the love letters he has preserved, for of course Farfrae has no idea that she is the Jersey woman his old boss had once talked about in a moment of confidence. Farfrae by now has set up in the grain business himself, and unlike his volatile former boss only ever speculates with infinite caution. Now that Henchard is a shamed bankrupt and has had his property sold off, Farfrae unwillingly inflicts a fourth major injury when he becomes unanimously voted the new mayor. Lucetta in the meanime becomes pregnant and is morbidly anxious that Henchard will disgrace her and begs him to return her compromising love letters. At length even stony Henchard finds he is able to relent and show pity, but foolishly he entrusts the letters to a third party, a devious individual with a grudge called Jopp, the same resentful man who had originally been promised the manager’s job that Henchard had instead given to Farfrae. Though even wily Jopp (played brilliantly by sinister Ronald Lacey in the Potter original) can see that Henchard by now can sink no lower with all the woes that have befallen him. He has lost office as the mayor not only because he was a bankrupt, but because as a magistrate he had been trying an old lady for committing a public nuisance in the town and that old lady turned out to be the furmity seller of 21 years ago. She had named Henchard before all in the court as the same drunken countryman who had once sold his wife and child in her tent, and his disgrace by now is total.

Jopp seeks his ultimate vengeance by bringing out Lucetta’s love letters in the local tavern and reading then aloud to the guffawing and pitiless old men and women. The mob frenzy is merciless at this point and it is a spectacularly vicious old lady who suggests they subject Farfrae’s wife with her shameful past to a skimmity ride, meaning they make caricature effigies of Lucetta and Henchard and drag them along on poles past the Jersey lady’s house, beating pans and shouting and making a terrifying ruckus. When they do this awful pantomime, Lucetta is of course seized with horror and takes an epileptic seizure and eventually loses her baby and dies. In the remake with Polly Walker this kernel and appalling scene is done relatively quickly even cursorily, meaning that the pathos of her needless death and the horror of collective cruelty is more muted than it should be. In the Potter version the skimmity ride is given extended treatment and Anna Massey’s delicate hysterical persona is well suited to emphasise her complete dissolution when the atavistic instincts of cruel rustics decide they wish to utterly destroy her.

This mob cruelty is also paralleled with the individual cruelty or rather heedless selfishness of the ruined Henchard. Rather than starve he is now obliged to take employment from Casterbridge’s leading merchant Farfrae, and he ends up in rough lodgings where the sole blessing in his life is the faithful attendance of Elizabeth Jane, who still believes him to be her father. One day when he is alone in his hovel he is visited by a stranger who introduces himself as a sailor by the name of Richard Newson, who had not after all drowned at sea, but had survived and made his way back to England. He is come looking for his wife Susan and their beloved daughter, and Henchard in a state of shock is able to truthfully tell him of Susan’s death, but horrifyingly he lies and says that Elizabeth Jane is dead too. Newson, not doubting his earnest voice, leaves grief stricken, and Henchard has so to speak bought himself a breathing space in what now feels like his arctic isolation amongst his fellow men. The inevitable progression is that widower Farfrae resumes his courtship with Elizabeth Jane and Henchard realising his approaching Nemesis vanishes from Casterbridge. Newson meanwhile has made further shrewd enquiries and realised that Farfrae’s intended wife was indeed his own daughter and that Henchard had told him a cruel lie. On the day of the wedding Henchard turns up to make some sort of shameful amends and is faced by Elizabeth Jane with the wickedness of his deceit. He retreats stricken to his ultimate death bed where he leaves the famous note saying he wishes that the world will forget all about him and never speak of him again.

These 2 very enjoyable adaptations have one thing in common. They both have a virtuoso lead in the shape of Alan Bates and Ciaran Hinds, both of whose acting and imaginative range are off the scale, but who receive inadequate support from sundry others in the cast. They both have extremely inadequate foils in the humdrum and stumbling actors playing Farfrae, and while the remake has a virtuoso Elizabeth Jane in the form of Jodhi May, it has an unconvincing tragic heroine in Polly Walker, who stays resolutely in the 21st century, and is no match at all for the original Anna Massey. It is in fact possible to have serious literary adaptations where everyone in the cast is excellent and no one is dragging their feet. Witness the peerless 1981 Charles Sturridge version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where everyone was on top form (Jeremy Irons, Claire Bloom, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier) and because of which the adaptation will surely endure for ever. But this business of casting a brilliant lead and then hoping for the best with everyone else, has for long been the default mode in British TV drama, and it is a crying shame, it really is.

THE PIRATE AND DONALD SUTHERLAND

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 18th July

THE PIRATE AND DONALD SUTHERLAND

I can usually tell Canadians from Americans but failed to do so recently. There was a large extended family of transatlantic tourists arrived in the Paradisos Café in the port yesterday, and they ordered huge and pricey breakfasts of omelettes, crepes and chocolate and cream covered waffles, thus keeping the staff feverishly on their toes as they raced up and down, to and from the balcony. Most prominently, there was the couple in their late 50s, she strikingly handsome and fair haired, he with a pirate’s kerchief on his head and a likeably comic provocative manner. They were accompanied by 3 friendly girls aged between 11 and 14, and a bulky and earnest man of about 30. He was impossibly young to be the Dad of all 3, but on the other hand if they were the children of the couple, they were all conceived in the woman’s forties.  The only feasible arithmetic allowed the young man to be their son, so Lord knows where the lovely kids came from. The girls were all crazy about the café cats and petted and took photos of them on their 3 splendid smartphones. Less explicable was the behaviour of the pirate husband who wandered into the cafe interior and approached the counter as if he wanted something badly. I was inside drinking coffee, and as there was no one around I walked into the kitchen to tell Maria she was needed. When she asked the quirky buccaneer what she could do for him he smiled a quizzical challenge and denied any need at all. He was just looking, he said, and then repeated the mysterious phrase. Just looking? Where did he think he was, John Lewis’s New Year Sales or the Hellenic equivalent?

Far odder than that, was that he disappeared from the café altogether for about 20 minutes, leaving the others on the balcony. When he arrived back and stood at the bottom of the balcony steps, he grinned paradoxically at his wife, then lifted up the kerchief to disclose a dramatically shaved head. The wife and the three girls all laughed and clapped their hands at this surprise tonsure, for evidently he had gone into the nearby hairdresser and had an impromptu makeover. I had no idea what his head looked like previously, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d had a thick and dense mop of curls, and had capriciously decided to shock the world today, or at least one of his worlds. Replacing his kerchief, he then strolled restlessly across to me and pointing said, ‘This guy is having his fix!’ the reason being I was currently enjoying a bottle of prizewinning Fix Beer, as manufactured here in Greece. His tone was friendly and not at all confrontational, and I smiled at both him and his wife. She walked over to where I sat and looking at the cat on my lap asked me about Asproula or Little Whitey, the beautiful snow-white stray who has adopted me as her favourite handy seat as of 4 and a half years ago. She used a strange expression and asked me was she a ‘communal’ cat. It is an amiable enough phrase, but implies the whole community might have affectionately adopted Asproula which is far from being the case. The Greeks tolerate but on the whole dislike stray cats and do nothing to encourage them. So street cats or stray cats is by far the more accurate representation of Asproula and her colleagues’ existential reality.

“Where are you  from?” I asked the handsome woman, expecting to hear Oregon or Philadelphia or Chattanooga.

“We’re from Toronto.”

I stared at the pirate’s beautiful wife, surprised, even abashed. “I always thought I could tell Canadians apart from Americans. I think it must be the first time ever that I got it wrong.”

At which she smiled with a most natural and expansive kindness, as if to say what did it really matter. But then I went on hurriedly, “I wouldn’t care, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Donald Sutherland lately, and he’s a Canadian.”

Again she glanced at me with an infinite tolerance, as unabashed by my bizarre and random comment, as she had been by her husband’s all or nothing and I now decided confrontational haircut (take it or leave it cos it’s me and it’s a fact). She didn’t bother to ask me why I’d been thinking so much about Sutherland, as if indeed it was the most natural thing in the world for everyone in creation to be ruminating about the remarkable actor.

I could have told her it was because I had been watching Sutherland for the umpteenth time as Casanova in the eponymous Fellini masterpiece from 1976. The range of the man’s acting there is quite simply beyond belief, for he goes from tender to quizzical, to arrogant, to humiliated, to grief stricken, to farcical, to narcissistic, to besotted, to suicidal desperation, to a calm and very final tranquillity, and to all else in between. And yet, naïve as it might sound, he is after all just the one man representing just the other one man of history.

I didn’t tell her any of that, but instead said doggedly:

“Joni Mitchell is Canadian too. Isn’t she?”

She chuckled uncritically at that, and said yes indeed Joni was. And then she shouted up for the kids and for the bulky, smileless man, and she and her jaunty pirate of a husband set off at the front in the direction of their yacht.

MEN WHO DON’T LISTEN TO WOMEN

The next post will be on or before Sunday 15th July

MEN WHO DON’T LISTEN TO WOMEN

What follows you will probably find barely credible, but I am repeating it verbatim, exactly as it happened. Almost exactly 20 years ago I happened to be on the phone to a literary editor of a UK national newspaper for which I wrote regular fiction reviews. She was a very busy woman of course, but I was nonetheless shocked when the conversation went as follows:

SHE. Hi there. How are you?

ME (after some hesitation). Well, my wife’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

SHE (nil pause) Oh really? That’s great! That’s great!

I didn’t, as it happened, challenge her by repeating what I had said, though for both our sakes in retrospect I wish I had. Had I made the same appalling auditory error as she had, I would certainly have wanted her to tell me of it immediately. And no, before you anticipate, I wasn’t mumbling into my beard that morning and for some reason my strong Cumbrian accent tended to all but disappear when I talked to any metropolitan literati.  Nor of course, was it that this particular woman was an unthinking psychopath, it was just that her job was such a classic pressured blue-arsed fly one, that unless the topic were strictly about book reviews and final deadlines, she just didn’t listen to what people were saying.

Nonetheless, it is both an anecdotal and a provable statistical fact, that women on the whole listen to men a great deal more than men do to women.  A friend of mine recently confided to me what I would already have guessed, that the bulk of UK men she met via an online dating agency for professional people, simply talked about themselves all the time, and asked either nothing or a few token questions about herself and her career. Whenever she answered the latter as best she could (she had been a successful teacher and then a kind of university pastoral worker) she assumed they couldn’t possibly be listening to her, for they both talked over her, and, as rapidly as they could, resumed their monologues about their endearing masculine selves. This woman also happened to have a fascinating and highly refined artistic talent which any right-thinking person would have wished to ask her about till the cows come home, but no Milord The Civil (good joke) Engineer and Des the breezily Monologuing Upmarket Gym Manager never asked her squit.

We can all guess the historical reasons for this monomania on the part of numerous males, for although it is almost 50 years since Germaine Greer published her ground-breaking  The Female Eunuch, unreformed sexism is alive and kicking in places you would think it might have died a death. There is most recently the brutal coercive abuse revealed in the supposedly liberal media world, of men like Harvey Weinstein demanding masturbatory sex in exchange for career advancement, or even worse if it was withheld the woman actor would be blacklisted within the film industry. Rather like the institutionalised sexual abuse of children within the extended spheres of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, it was both the tip of the iceberg and an open secret. Everybody knew about it, and knew it was no doubt disgusting and doubtless caused endless torment to its victims, but nobody did anything about it, because everyone was afraid of those who held an inordinate amount of power and almost all of these powerful  folk happened to be men. Probably the aptest way of defining these predatory males is that they are severely infantilised individuals who do not understand adult boundaries, so think to themselves on the lines of, your body is self-evidently mine to do with as I want, if I so wish. Any truly functioning adult would be appalled by that demented equation,  but there is a whole structurally related spectrum that leads back to the starting line so speak of  those charming men we all know who think they are a hero if they make their wife a cup of tea, and would throw up their arms in merriment if expected to cook a three course meal. It is not as bad as it was in DH Lawrence’s day no doubt, where in Sons and Lovers, a sulking collier would sweep everything off the mantelpiece if it wasn’t as pristine clean as he expected it. But fast-forwarding a full century to 1990 (meaning 20 years after Greer’s remarkable book) when I was looking after my baby daughter Ione in rural NE Cumbria and Annie was working full time as a busy social work training officer, I asked the friendly health visitor who made occasional visits how many people she knew like me, a Dad doing full time child care. This infinitely capable woman was it turned out responsible not only for NE Cumbria but also rural E Cumbria around far-flung Alston and Nenthead and Garrigill. Both areas had about 900 infants each, and until recently no less than 2 anomalous infants out of the 1800 had been looked after by their Dads. But the other bloke had gradually got unbearably fed up with his job, so now I was the sole bearded carer out of 1800 ‘Mums’.

You would think, would you not, that the sophisticated literary world meaning the world of nuance and ineffable rumination and scrutiny, that it would be ipso facto educated, liberal and aware, and the last place where the sweet little doting woman would be treated as a handy attachment to her heroic chap, forever in the throes of his capricious artistic genius. As it happens the majority of writers do not have writer partners, and my wife Annie from the mid 80s onwards had high flying careers as first a social work trainer, then a private consultant trainer, and ultimately a national expert in Organisational Transactional Analysis, meaning she was a highly regarded specialist who was brilliant at helping groups of people to work together cooperatively in their jobs. Yet almost every time we found ourselves in among a bunch of poets, playwrights and novelists at a party, it was always me was asked the interesting and flattering questions about what precisely I was up to and without exception the arty-farty men there would ask my incredibly talented wife precisely nothing about what she might be busy with.

And yet, even more startling, was that it wasn’t always the arty-farty men who saw all male creative artists per se as a kind of minor which is to say a major and truly worshipful domestic deity. At one of these crowded literary dos we attended, a commercially successful woman writer on discovering that both Annie and I worked much of the time at home, turned with a worried expression to her, and more or less accused her of potentially getting in the way of the great man, by disturbing his oh so necessary pristine solitude, without which the necessary inspirational lightning would surely never strike. Annie being a wise and always gentle woman, instead of swearing at her, pointed out that we had separate offices and nobody ever got in anyone’s way, unless it were our 2 daft dogs always tripping us up en route to the kitchen and coffee. I would also have said what Annie didn’t bother to say, that her work was arguably more valuable than mine would ever be, both intrinsically in her helping people to be so much happier in their jobs…but also because it was Annie who made most of our income, and thus kept  the show, meaning me, her, and our child Ione, on the road that we travelled…

 

 

HAPPINESS FOR EVER MORE

The next post will be on or before Sunday July 8th

HAPPINESS FOR EVERMORE

I don’t know about you, but New Year’s Eve is my least favourite festive celebration. There is something about the spectacle of worldwide and flatteringly televised urban partying, washed down with booze and uproarious cheering and endless fireworks, that at best seems innocent wishful thinking and at worst a feckless and alienated denial of unflinching human realities. At the sobering national level, they whoop it up in totalitarian China where you can get jailed or even shot for protesting about flagrant civic corruption, and they also whoop it up in harmless places like Finland where no one gets shot for doing anything and where the prospect of a Happy New Year for any of it citizens is almost, and I stress almost, a working reality. But it is the unconvincing timescale that is the real issue here. The time axis for the hackneyed benediction Happy New Year! is a bloody long one, 12 long months, and in reality, neither you nor me nor all those hooraying kids in NY, Paris and London pie-eyed at the prospect of the coming Shangri La, that mystical and sentimental entity which is the pristine and unsullied year to come, can expect a whole year to be entirely without its hitches, worries, griefs and even tragedies. I am not a pessimist by any means, quite the opposite, but even the best year one has in one’s life, and I have had some great ones, is inevitably marred by the fact that others all over the world are living in a timeless which is to say eternal hell of either poverty or wholesale oppression, in part structurally linked to the fact that you and I are not. So, if you are going to believe in the cheery authenticity of Happy New Year! you might as well believe in Happy New Decade! so that at midnight on 31.12.2009 you should have been bawling in your partying pal’s lughole to that effect, 10 whole years of fun my best beloved! and here’s to you! But why after all stop there? On 31.12.1999 had you thought seriously about your luxurious options, you could have had a 2 in 1, a buy 1 get 1 free wishy-wish-wish, because you could have carolled in the same lughole, Happy New Century! my dear old bosom chum! and while we are it, and at the same time permit me to felicitate you with, A Happy New One Thousand Years ! you hoary old bastard, you!

Which is where we come to Greece and their idea of benedictions, which are both complex and simple and innately intelligent, because, I would argue, of the learned wisdom of mostly oppressive centuries. They celebrate New Year as much as anyone else, and being Greek, their fireworks are louder and more frightening than anywhere else in the universe, and go on for what seems several millennia. The official New Year partying on Kythnos is in the Hora capital, but in 2014 daughter Ione and I stayed in the port here and dined late at the excellent Kandouni grill, the only place open as it stole to midnight, and with about a dozen other quietly chatting customers. When it turned 2015, the shy and affable owner switched the electric light off for one second, and then switched it on again, and that was it. There followed subdued clapping and handshakes and numerous kisses. A man after my heart, I thought, as I knocked back his bakalarios cod fritters with skordalia bread and garlic sauce and his fried courgettes in their eggwhite batter that are surely not made by a man nor woman but by an angel. So yes, the Greeks do like everyone else wish each other a one-year long felicitation, but acknowledging the brevity and sometimes painful uncertainty of life, they also pragmatically work backwards in time, and at the start of every month wish you Kalo Minas! or Happy New Month! Better still every Monday morning (yes you are right a week starts on a Sunday but try telling a Greek that) they wish you Kali vdhomadha! Happy New Week, 7 days of innocent fun and always joyful surprises, let us pray!

But best of all, and I would say it is a truly transcendent and infinitely instructive concept, plus I believe they are probably the only nation in the world to do so, Greeks very often say as they leave you and go on their way, Kali synekhia! There is no straightforward English equivalent of this, as it means literally Happy Continuity! and to give it more logical sense we need to parse it at some length: May Your Day Continue To Go Seamlessly Well!  The nearest UK or more likely US version of this, would be Have a Nice Day! which quite rightly has been laughed into touch by those repelled by autopilot fawning from shop assistants, bank managers and all others required to grovel in order to earn their sales and/or commissions. But the reality is the Greeks are only blessing you for the rest of the 24 hours the pair of you are sharing together on this earth….and having spent centuries under the no nonsense Ottomans, plus the various brutal army juntas starting with Metaxas, continuing with the post war Royalist right supported by napalm-flinging Americans and the phlegmatic arms-folded Brits as their Greek allies pursued the leftists into Albania, and carrying on doggedly siga siga 1967-1974 with the mad Athens generals and their  heartfelt blessing by heroic Richard Nixon…having suffered all of that and getting no credit for it, internationally speaking, the Greeks know that to get through just today itself is enough of an ambition for starters.

ANNIE ASCENDS MACHU PICCHU AND THE STRONGMAN OF MILOS

ANNIE ASCENDS MACHU PICCHU AND THE STRONGMAN OF MILOS

What We Did and What I Read in 2000

Millennial 2000 was a big year for all three of us. It was over a year since Annie’s chemotherapy had finished and to celebrate the fact she went trekking in Peru to raise money for The Children’s Society. Ione meanwhile started her Cumbrian secondary school at somewhere rated highest in the much-venerated league tables, but from Day 1 she loathed having to wear uniform and spent as much time as possible trying to make it non-uniform. That summer, after a long struggle, I had my novel John Dory accepted by Flambard Press, and a few months later I turned 50, a full half century. My surprise present from Annie, only revealed the night before, was that we were off to glorious cosmopolitan Dublin for a long weekend. Highlights of that trip included watching a raw contemporary drama at The Gate Theatre where the humble but excellent bars of Irish chocolate in the foyer cost 30p and the coffee 25p. Pricewise it was like being back in the Century Theatre, Keswick West Cumbria in 1962, though in the nearby expensive Korean restaurant we were conspicuously the only non-Koreans and were pleased to be so. We also met an impressive joker in Dublin bus station, a coach driver who poker-faced told us our bus to Wicklow had already departed, then seeing our mugs fall, guffawed no no, I’m lying, there it is, and it’s me is driving the fecker.

In September Annie flew with her group to Lima, thence to Cuzco and then trekked along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, accompanied by guides and tireless porters, and those porters my wife could not praise enough. Mostly small and wiry men, they were strong enough to take impossible loads, make all the tea and snacks and meals, were cheerful and kind to a fault, and were more than likely paid a pittance. All her group had suffered altitude sickness in Cuzco so that the splendid banquet specially prepared for them they could barely touch. That plus the fact she had been through major surgery and arduous chemo, meant that Annie nearly didn’t make it to the top of Machu Picchu and the trek leader almost had her airlifted back to Cuzco. But my wife took a deep breath and rallied as she always did, and somehow got herself to the summit, where she rang me at our 18th century farmhouse near Brampton, North Cumbria.  Back in 2000 the international mobile signal also had altitude sickness for it was all whistles and eerie short-wave splutters, but to hear her brave and loving voice from such a profound and moving place, was a poignant and enchanting joy that will never fade.

A month before, on the agreed principle of visiting the obscurest Greek islands possible, we travelled to tiny Kimolos, and spent a week there and another week on adjacent Milos. Annie and I, veteran backpackers, always believed in turning up on spec, and in any case 18 years ago there was no booking.com and no one we knew had ever reserved or bought anything online. But not only was it high season August, there was some special festival on in Kimolos and accommodation was at a premium. Worse still there was neither a bus nor a taxi on the little island, so as dusk drew on, we had to leg it in great heat from the minuscule port Psathi, which then amazingly had nil rooms at any time of year, up to the beautiful Hora. Luckily it wasn’t far and even better, after trying 5 places, we were directed to a restaurant cum domatia at the very pinnacle of the capital. The short squat, warmly grinning owner was about 50 and was both likeable and clearly devious, a common enough phenomenon in many Greek islands in August when I think about it. He pretended to think for a moment and said he did have a room, then put us in some kind of makeshift forgotten annex with 3 beds that was tolerable enough, albeit the wardrobe was nailed fast and the seating provision outside where Annie and I bebbed retsina every night was a torn and dirty bus seat (on an island without a bus that is).  Every day we would see darkly sunburnt, grizzled shepherds on mules taking a short cut near the restaurant and they all wore massive poncho hats and looked more 19th C Mexicans than millennial Greeks. They also had a certain uncompromising pride about them, partly down to the fact that Kimolos doesn’t need tourists, for it is self-sufficient in terms of mining, especially of Fuller’s earth (kimolo means ‘chalk’ which is now exhausted on the island). A less savoury discovery was that when we visited a remote beach taverna that certainly looked an eternal idyll, the handsome Polish waitress in her 20s said she had only got the job on condition she slept with the fat and bone-idle 60-year-old owner who sat there beaming at his cronies and his waitress, as if he had the whole of his chosen universe under control.

Kimolos is the only inhabited satellite isle of the much bigger Milos, and when we transferred there we stopped in the invigorating port of Pollonia. It was even harder getting accommodation here, and we had to try a dozen places before finding somewhere right next to the handsome little strip of beach. In 2000 they were still using drachmas in Greece, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the 1500cc bottles of Kourtaki retsina cost exactly 1750 dr, if only because Annie and I drank the cool and aromatic wine every night on our terrace accompanied by black olives and pistachios. The one great diversion of that week was the appearance in little Pollonia of a travelling strongman aged about 35, bearded and quite handsome, built like a brick shithouse needless to add, and clad in fake leopard skin. In private he was outstandingly polite, and after his performance addressed us obvious foreigners in good English, and urged Ione aged 11 never to start smoking nor adopt any other deleterious habits. About 3 years later she was clandestinely puffing away at school and home, but he himself was scarcely a lifelong role model albeit in an obscure sense. The piece de resistance of his Tarzan act was for him to drag a sizeable saloon car several yards along the beach with a stout rope inserted in his teeth via a kind of cloth mouthpiece. It was a spellbinding thing to watch, and made me think of provincial and seemingly magical entertainment from previous centuries, but Nikos as he was called was getting massive amounts of exhaust fumes in his face as he pulled, and surely they were even more noxious than the likes of 20 Assos he was warning our daughter against in the summer of 2000.

What I Read in 2000 (from my Reading Diary for that year)

Tommaso and the Blind Photographer by Gesualdo Bufalino (compelling Sicilian author 1920-1996, helped along the way by another great Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia)

Reflections on the Water by Alan Ross (1922- 2001. Fine 2000 travel book by the legendary editor of the London Magazine, who succeeded John Lehmann)

Another Part of the Forest by GB Stern (enjoyable literary essays by friend and contemporary of Rebecca West who wrote the marvellous Matriarch novels, all reissued by Virago)

Left and Right/The Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth (1894-1939. The great Austrian Jewish writer was a chronic alcoholic and his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis. He died at the age of 45)

Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s greatest writer, long resident in Paris)

Beloved Stranger by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. One of her quirkier novels about an old Irish spinster mistaking the identity of a young black woman arrived in Dublin. Very enjoyable)

Birds of Passage by Robert Sole (born 1946. Fine French Egyptian writer who won the Prix Mediterranee in 1992)

The Chateau by William Maxwell (1908-2000. The 1961 novel of the legendary New Yorker fiction editor)

The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (Wells wrote numerous novels, most of them comic, but only a handful  I would say are genuinely funny, including Mr Polly, Kipps, Tono Bungay, Love and Mr Lewisham, and Ann Veronica. Those like Mr Britling Sees It Through and The Bulpington of Blup are well-nigh unreadable. In 1980 Mr Polly was televised by the BBC with Andrew Sachs = the Fawlty Towers’ Manuel in the title role)

Meanwhile by HG Wells (this was one of his rare novels about contemporary political issues, in this case the General Strike of 1926. I enjoyed it very much)

The New Machiavelli by HG Wells (this is more of a didactic novel, and Wells was not only a famous Utopian but also believed in unsavoury things like eugenics. At one stage due to his phenomenal literary eminence and fabled productivity, he was one of the best known celebrities in the world)

Easter by Michael Arditti (the 2000 novel of the writer and critic whose novels deal with spirituality and sexuality. His early books were published by the now defunct Arcadia Press, run by the late great Gary Pulsifer)

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie (my favourite Rushdie novels are Shame, about the politics of Pakistan, and The Moor’s Last Sigh. On my 4th reading of Midnight’s Children I was to my surprise actually bored in parts, as his recurrent magical motifs are so relentlessly rammed home)

Dona Perfecta by Benito Perez Galdos (Spain’s greatest 19th C author, several of whose works were beautifully adapted by Luis Bunuel. It is surely appalling that some UK readers who know their Flaubert and Dostoievsky backwards, haven’t even heard of their Spanish equivalent nor his Portuguese counterpart Eca de Queiroz)

One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989. This is the 1974 novel of the great Sicilian novelist and radical politician, who famously wrote about the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrat Aldo Moro)

The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch (at her best she is one of my favourite writers and at her whimsical worst I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. She was also a philosophy don at Oxford)

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

Heloise and Abelard by George Moore (1852-1993. The Dublin writer who was part of the Irish Literary Revival movement alongside Lady Gregory etc, but who is little read these days. He originally trained as an artist in Paris and his 1883 bohemian novel A Modern Lover was banned by the English circulating libraries. Esther Waters was once televised by the BBC and his Confessions of a Young Man is still very readable. His epic Biblical novel The Brook Kerith is hard going in my view)

The Courrier Affair by Marta Morazzoni (born 1950 in Lombardy. This 1997 novel won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award)

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (one of my favourites. Famously it was what TV comedian Tony Hancock took to bed with him on a depressing Christmas Day)

Men of Good Will by Jules Romains (pen name of Louis Farigoule 1885-1972, famous for his 27 volume novel cycle of which this is the eponymous title. He also knew Georges Duhamel, one of my favourite writers)

Inferno by Benito Perez Galdos

A History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago (wonderfully gifted Nobel winner 1998 and my literary hero)

The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’ Doherty (multi -talented Irish art critic and novelist born 1928 who has spent most of his life in NY. This extremely compelling 1999 novel was Booker shortlisted in 2000)

The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis (my favourite work by the great Cretan novelist, author of Zorba the Greek)

The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago (a daring blackly comic fantasy about the consequences of the Iberian peninsula, meaning Portugal and Spain, splitting in two)

Paris  by Emile Zola

Pity For Women by Henri Montherlant (1895-1972. This is one of the tetralogy entitled The Girls which sold millions of copies worldwide. A brilliant but harsh writer Montherlant was expelled from Catholic boarding school for a gay relationship and was famously misogynistic. He committed suicide with a gun and a cyanide tablet)

Asphyxiation by Violette le Duc (1907-1972. This is the first novel published 1946 of the author of the Lesbian classic Therese and Isabelle)

Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy (1912-1989. Contains harrowing details about the sadistic childhood abuse by her Uncle Myers. She was a political radical, activist and atheist whose best known works are the 1942 The Company She Keeps and the 1954 The Group)

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly (1903-1974. Editor of Horizon and someone who knew absolutely everyone from Aldous Huxley to Henry Miller and bisexual novelist Violet Trefusis by whom he was smitten)

Off The Rails by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (enjoyable travel writing by someone who never flies but only goes by train. Author of Slow Train to Milan, Keepers of the House, and other classics, she is one of the few contemporary UK novelists that I really admire. That might I suppose be because she has spent so much of her life abroad)

River of Fire by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970. Nobel winner 1952. I once read 6 of his novels in a row)

The Stories of Frank O’ Connor (Ireland’s best known story writer, one of whose best known tales is called My Oedipus Complex)

The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy (I love Hardy but this is one of his more wooden and barely readable novels)

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (that’s more like it)

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

The Dove’s Nest by Katherine Mansfield (NZ writer, 1888-1923, one of the greatest story writers ever. She was married to the eminent British critic John Middleton Murry and died aged only 34 of TB)

A Russian Gentleman by Sergei Aksakov (1791-1859. He specialised in writing semi-autobiographical tales about Russian life as well as memoirs on fishing. A friend of Gogol, Dostoievsky and Tolstoy)

The Pain Tree by Charles Wilkinson (debut story collection by a gifted writer whose fiction appeared in London Magazine and Panurge Fiction Magazine which I edited for 6 years)

Seven Men by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956. Famous writer, caricaturist and parodist who died in Rapallo, Italy)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch

Launcelot Greaves by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771. Of the picaresque 18th C UK novelists I much prefer Scotsman Smollett to Henry Fielding of Tom Jones fame. Smollett was a ship’s surgeon which meant he saw life in the raw, and there is a kind of comic brutality which he presents as an undeniable fact of life. The only novel of his I don’t like is the shapeless and tedious Ferdinand Count Fathom, which I believe he must have written when drunk)

Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch

Mr Gilhooley by Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984. His strange 1926 novel about a Dublin loner rich from investments in S Africa, who ends up with a capricious waif of a woman who drives him half mad. WB Yeats thought it a masterpiece)

Return of the Brute by Liam O’ Flaherty

Insurrection by Liam O Flaherty (Published 1950. His last novel which is about the Easter Uprising of 1916)

Skerrett by Liam O’ Flaherty (this abrasive, disturbing work and all of  his  fine, uncompromising novels were reissued in the 1990s by Wolfhound Press, Dublin, which is now sadly defunct)

Eca’s English Letters (Eca de Queiroz was Portugal’s greatest 19th C writer and for a time he was working in the Portuguese consulate in Newcastle upon Tyne)

The Creation of the World by Miguel Torga (1907-1995. One of Portugal’s greatest 20th C writers. This six volume autobiographical novel was published between 1937 and 1981)

Journey to Portugal by Jose Saramago (engaging travelogue by the Nobel winner)

Jack Yeats by Bruce Arnold (wonderful authoritative study of the great Irish artist who was brother of the poet WB Yeats)

Les Liaisons Culinaires by Andreas Staikos (born 1944 in Athens. This is his 1997 novel also known as Dangerous Cooking, and he is also a prolific playwright)

Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch

Gardener to the King by Frederic Richaud (born 1966.  Published in 1999 as Monsieur le Jardinier, and the king in question was Louis XIV. Richaud also writes comic book scenarios)

The Lightning of August by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (1928-1983. Mexican satirical crime novelist who often used real events and scandals for his novels)

A Word Child by Iris Murdoch

A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm

Island Cross Talk by Tomas O’Crohan (translation of the fine memoir by Blasket Island author, Co Kerry, who also wrote The Islandman )

The Boy on the Wall by James Plunkett (best known for his excellent 1969 bestseller Strumpet City about the period up to the dockland lockout in Dublin 1913. He also wrote some fine short stories collected by Poolbeg Press)

A Deputy Was King by GB Stern (one of the addictive Matriarch novels about the Rakonitz Czelovar Jewish business dynasty, after they had settled themselves in London. Published by Virago)

Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967. Excellent comic novel by famously acerbic Irish poet from Monaghan who also wrote the hilarious The Green Fool)

Desire by James Stephens (1880-1950. Irish poet and story writer whose best known work is the 1912 Crock of Gold, based on Irish fairy tales. He was a friend of and collaborator with James Joyce)

Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy (his most shocking novel which was dramatised not very convincingly by the BBC in 1971 with Robert Powell as Jude)

Man and Superman, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, John Bull’s Other Island, The Doctor’s Dilemma, from the Complete Plays of GB Shaw (I enjoyed all of these, especially the last one, but have never once seen Shaw on either stage or TV. We read Pygmalion at school however)

A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland by Liam O’ Flaherty

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Famine by Liam O’ Flaherty (his harrowing 1937 epic about the Irish potato famines of the 1840s)

Flann O’ Brien by Anthon Cronin (illuminating critical study of the great comic writer, 1910-1966, who only achieved his proper recognition some 10 years after his death)