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)

 

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