The next post will be on or before Tuesday, 2nd October


The 2002 film Sonny marks the directorial debut of Nicholas Cage (born 1964) who is of course a star actor brilliant in e.g. the 1987 Coen Bros Raising Arizona, and the harrowing alcoholism saga Leaving Las Vegas (1995) as well as acting in a fair amount of third-rate money-spinners and worse. Sonny with James Franco (born 1978) surprisingly received mostly negative reviews, but I have watched it twice and enjoyed it a great deal, and can strongly recommend it, not least because of the virtuoso acting of Franco and the UK actress Brenda Blethyn (born 1946) who plays his brothel owner mother in the film. As obsessive card sharp and Blethyn’s feckless lover, it also stars the late great Harry Dean Stanton (1926-2017) towering in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) and in the contrasting but hugely enjoyable and uncategorizable 1984 SF fantasy Repo Man where he starred alongside Emilio Estevez(born 1962).

One day in 1981 Sonny returns from the US army, and clad in uniform walks towards his maternal home which unusually is a brothel in seedy, downtown New Orleans. En route he sees endless amounts of sex shamelessly for sale and in the raw, not just joints with strippers but live sex acts and in a brief cameo he notes 3 little boys gazing through a window at something extremely engrossing. His mother Jewel lives in an elegant four floors mansion and screams with delight when he returns. We soon learn that she trained him as a fatherless gigolo when he was a boy and now swilling bourbon is witlessly confident he will return to his old trade. Blethyn who is English, is wonderfully convincing as a conniving, lachrymose and self- pitying Louisiana madam, and when you consider she is best known for that God-awful UK TV detective series Vera, you can only wonder at her infinite versatility. Jewel also has a filthy temper and bawls at Sonny when he says he is going down to Texas to work in a bookstore, and also rants viciously at Carol, one of her prostitutes, played very ably by the beautiful Mena Suvari (born 1979) who is of Greek and Estonian extraction. Just as James Franco is familiar from certain Spider Man movies and the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) so Suvari is immediately recognisable from the hit 1999 film American Beauty. Once introduced, these two young ones are immediately attracted, and that night Carol walks boldly into his bedroom and asks Sonny to make love, which they do with an unusual tenderness.

Despite his mother’s raging sulks Sonny drives down to Texas City for the bookshop post, but to no avail as the job his friend had arranged had fallen through. By way of compensation the friend arranges a date with two attractive young women and before long Sonny is in bed with one of them, who when she praises his sexual prowess makes the mistake of confessing he was once a male hooker and escort. She makes a frightened excuse and goes to the bathroom, but he follows her and sees she is drinking a bottle of codeine. Challenged, she says it is only cough medicine, but Sonny goes berserk and smashes up every bottle of codeine he can find stashed away in the numerous bathroom cupboards. The woman shrieks at him to get out of the house and Sonny’s friend intervenes but he continues his epic destruction and roars at the 3 of them:

“I am better than all of you! I am a better person than you are!”

As confirmation of which, he immediately returns to New Orleans and easy money as an experienced hooker. The next day he bumps into 2 middle-aged women friends of his mother, when he is out buying suitably expensive clothes for the escort role. Both friends, one of them plump and motherly, are openly attracted to the handsome 24- year-old, and drag him off for a drink, and sure enough the next day we see him vigorously shafting the obese one in her bedroom and her gurgling and shrieking with delight. Having accepted his payment, he asks for her to recommend him to friends and within days he has a colourful task where he has to turn up at a woman’s secluded mansion pretending to be a policeman investigating a possible break in into her bedroom. The cop’s uniform has been acquired by Henry/Harry Dean Stanton, who has plentiful contacts in the underworld, and Sonny goes through his charade very patiently as the woman pretends theatrical surprise, says her husband is travelling away on work, asks where the policeman’s obligatory colleague is etc. Once in the bedroom, the policeman berates her and brutally handcuffs her to her bed, then strips and takes her and she like her fat friend shrieks her delirious joy. There is a difference though, inasmuch as she gives him less money than promised, whereupon no nonsense Sonny starts smashing her TV and ripping her curtains until she relents and pays him the full amount. As an improvisation on these 2 erotic set pieces, Sonny and Carol are invited to a glamorous party thrown by the plump lady, a socialite hostess, with the understanding that at the end of it, Sonny will sleep with her while Carol cavorts with her paunchy old husband. Sonny is ordered to take the hostess roughly and to rip her costly party dress from her neck, as Carol elsewhere straddles the gormless husband who babbles his yes, yes, superb, superb! before he reaches orgasm. The total cost for this foursome is $500 which corresponds exactly to the price of the gorgeous white suit that Sonny had had to acquire to become a gigolo with dignity.

This irony is highlighted alongside an impressively understated reality apropos being a prostitute or a male hooker. You cannot marry and have children and lead a normal life if you wish to be in the trade doing tricks, and when Carol shows signs of wishing otherwise, Jewel threatens to have her ‘cut’ so that no one would want her, married or not. Throughout the film Carol begs Sonny to leave the brothel and Jewel, and to escape to a new life, but Sonny is no hero and he vacillates at every point. There is a moving set piece where the two of them go off for a ride in his car and she suggests they have a little walk together, but he looks at the sky and worries that his suit (= his gigolo status) will be ruined. Nevertheless, she harries him and as predicted it pours down, and they seek refuge in a barn. There they come across a sheepdog that has just had a litter of pups, and Carol is moved to tears if only because it makes her think of motherhood and the fact it is denied to her as a whore. But Sonny doesn’t get it and says it is only a dog, so that Carol runs from the barn in the pouring rain with Sonny in pursuit, only for the pair of them to slide in a puddle and for the suit to be ruined. There is an ambiguous and tantalisingly apparent reconciliation, but no promise from Sonny that he will dare to leave his maternal prison.

Meanwhile Henry, Jewel’s feckless partner, keeps on having all day rummy card games with his best friend who runs a bar, and Henry keeps on losing. One night though he wins all of $60 and starts to crow overbearingly about his success, and that it signals a magical rise in his fortunes. Instead he leaves the bar, gets into his car, pulls out without looking, and is immediately ploughed into by a huge speeding lorry, so that the car explodes and he is incinerated. After the funeral Jewel is suddenly moved to make a confession, which is that Henry was Sonny’s father but that the pair of them decided to conceal the fact as they wanted Sonny to be a success at whatever he did and not end up like Henry.

You will have noted throughout the film that Sonny keeps going berserk, but ultimately a cowardly act of self-destruction dictates the pattern of the rest of his life. Traumatised by Jewel’s admission, first of all he goes into a bar and orders a certain bourbon drink which he covers with a napkin, shakes in a frenzy, and downs in a single gulp He does this numerous times, until he is wildly drunk and the make-up artist for this film was a genius at this point, for as he wanders through New Orleans his eyes have shrunk to the size of two lentils. Mesmerisingly, he starts to giggle inanely at sundry street musicians who are playing heavy metal guitar that sounds like the fanfare as one approaches Hell. He is then inspired to knock on the door of an acquaintance called Acid Yellow, played with easy finesse by the director Nick Cage, so called as he wears a hideous yellow suit and bank clerk’s specs to that he looks like the pimp to outpimp all others.  Sonny knows that Yellow’s clients are legendarily upmarket, and says that he wants one, a guy who is looking for rough trade, as he needs the money and because Yellow owes him a favour as an old friend. At length Yellow obliges, and puts him in a bedroom where a rich if puny executive nervously enters, kneels on the floor and demands to be punished.

“Why do you want to be punished?” Sonny asks him with infinite menace.

“Because I’ve been bad!”

“Oh? Do you want to know why you are bad?”


Because you have got a father. And I haven’t!”

Sonny then goes insane and proceeds to beat the executive senseless, until panicking Yellow and his minder intervene, the pimp in a demented fury at losing his most lucrative client. Sonny ultimately beats off the minder and escapes onto the street, only to be roared at by Yellow as a ‘fucking cunt’. When he wakes up the next morning, he has Carol begging him to escape and to marry her, and saying if he won’t she will accept the offer of one of her johns, an ugly overweight and brutal middle-aged man who had several times asked her to be his wife. True to form, Sonny vacillates until Carol loses patience and joins her future husband in his car. She is sobbing with grief at which the unheeding slob tells her to shut the fuck up, as she is messing her mascara. Carol briefly hallucinates Sonny joining her at the last minute and the pair of them flinging themselves into each other’s arms and we the spectators are as hopeful and excited as she is. But it is only a fantasy and instead Sonny stands there rooted to his past, to his invincible mother and the father who he did not know was his.


The next post will be on or before Sunday 30th September


What I Did and Read in 2001

In August of 2001 Annie, Ione and I spent a truly perfect fortnight in North Portugal, close to the Spanish border in an attractively appointed central flat in the handsome little town of Caminha. As in all civilised European countries (excluding the philistine UK, predictably enough) every town in Portugal offers an extensive range of free cultural events in the busiest tourist month of the year. One boiling hot night, the 13th August to be precise, there was some superb Luso-Brazilian vocal jazz on the Largo Turismo. The virtuoso singer who would have made good competition for the likes of Chick Corea’s Brazilian regular Flora Purim, was Maja Makaric Pavlovic, a beautiful Serbian woman living permanently in Portugal. And so it was that we enjoyed that exhilarating cosmopolitan mix that I find so attractive about European culture, as opposed to the infantilised myopia of the ludicrous Brexit perversion. When we weren’t watching the free events in Caminha, we were visiting as many little towns as we could between our base and the Spanish border, including Vila Nova de Cerveira, Valenca, Moncao and Melgaco. Only the first one could be reached via train, and though it is a handsome little place with a ferry into Spain, there was the harrowing sight of an impoverished travelling circus near the station with a very depressed old flea-bitten lion trapped inside a cage the size of a removal van. Valenca was more cheerful and near the bus station is an enormous open market patronised mostly by Spaniards who can buy everything there a whole lot cheaper than back in Spain. From there we carried on to Moncao, whose bus station is next to the defunct and therefore melancholy railway station, and dallying in the little town saw that there was a concert to be given that night by Eagle Eye Cherry (born 1968). In case you’ve never heard of him, he is the half-Swedish son of the eminent jazz trumpeter Don Cherry (1936-1995) and sister of the remarkable and incendiary singer Neneh Cherry (born 1964).

We realised soon enough that if we went to the late-night concert we would never get back to Caminha unless by exorbitant taxi. We therefore decided to walk back to the bus station and this is where the inexplicable took over because small and compact as Moncao is, we were wholly unable to find the conspicuous place we had exited from about 3 hours earlier. We tried about 6 times and asked directions from groups of old men at every opportunity, then found ourselves returning stupidly to our sources of information, all of them laughing uproariously if tolerantly at our non-existent navigational skills. The next day we tried to retrieve our dignity by going further on to Melgaco, famous for its vinho verde wine, exquisite churches and the impressive central square. That evening some massive outdoor spectacle was planned as part of the August events and half a dozen young guys with beards were assembling a great deal of lofty scaffolding. Their beards convinced me it just be something theatrical and I pondered whether sitting through a couple of hours of dramatic Portuguese would be a pain or a pleasure, and then the fact that Ione was only 12 and the drama unlikely to be knockabout slapstick decisively clinched it.

It was less than a month later that most of the world convulsed and fell to bits when 9/11 happened. I watched the collapsing towers on daytime TV in our North Cumbrian farmhouse and aside from the horror and brutal evil of incinerating innocent folk, a fair number of them US Muslims, there was the overwhelming sense of its sheer impossibility. Meaning, what I was watching here on daytime TV was rank incredible, and yet unspeakably it was the case, it was a new and hideous reality, yet the enduring impossibility of what I was observing was confirmed by the fact that no one aside from the perpetrators and maybe a few intelligence personnel in sundry parts of the world could possibly have predicted such a freakish circus tableau of pitiless cruelty. As an aside, I cannot abide the caricatural adolescent fictions of Martin Amis, but he wrote a piece about 9/11 that was brilliant and perceptive beyond words, whereafter I decided he should stick to non-fiction and thereby gain a just rather than exaggerated stature.

Fast forward another month, and it was my 51st birthday and my wonderful wife Annie who knew what I wanted better than I knew what I wanted, did me proud by buying me a subscription to Sky TV, to the pantheon of limitless digital media as opposed to the 5 increasingly feeble UK terrestrial ones. We both knew that 275 of the 300 digital TV and radio channels available peddled unutterable garbage, but Annie also  knew that I craved to have access to BBC Knowledge (the distinguished precursor of the usually pallid ‘culture’ channel BBC4) as well as Artsworld (now the far less impressive Sky Arts 1 and 2) plus all the umpteen film channels of which TCM, Film 4 and its sadly deceased brethren of Film 4 World and Film 4 Extreme were particularly attractive . There were also a couple of music channels (Mainstreet was one) played vintage jazz concerts which put me in a seventh heaven needless to add, albeit within a year and without any notice to the doting viewers they bit the dust and were never to be seen again. At any rate, the digital experience was so profound that I wrote an entire novel about it, Murphy’s Favourite Channels (2004) which had alternating digital and terrestrial narratives and which was featured as a Novel of the Week in that bastion of liberal thought and humane radicalism, The Daily Telegraph.

What I Read in 2001 (from my Reading Diary)

The Crossing Place – a Journey among Armenians by Philip Marsden (born 1961. A fine travelogue published 1993)

Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb (an Australian born 1946 who spent much of his time in Naples. A terrific study of the contemporary Mafia)

The Carpenter’s Pencil by Manuel Rivas (born 1957, leading Spanish novelist also Founder Member of Greenpeace Spain)

Second Spring by Max Egremont (born 1948 and a Baron twice over. This is his excellent 1993 novel)

What a Lovely Sunday by Jorge Semprun (1923-2011. Major Spanish author who lived mostly in France and wrote in French. A communist at one stage, the Nazis put him in Buchenwald as described in this novel. He was also a socialist Minister of Culture in Spain after Franco died)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (born 1959. This is her 1985 autobiographical novel about a girl brought up in a strict evangelical sect in the north of England. It was successfully televised in 1990 with Geraldine McEwan as the devout Mum)

Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island by HG Wells (as a rule of thumb any comic novel by Wells with ‘Mr’ in the title tends to be unreadable e.g. Mr Britling Sees it Through. This is no exception)

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

More by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956. His 1899 novel)

The Gold Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1916-2000. This is his 1958 novel. Bassani was of Ferrara Jewish origins whose situation under WW2 Fascism was depicted in The Garden of the Finzi Continis . He was also a publisher’s editor responsible for taking on the legendary The Leopard by Lampedusa.)

Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Eminent Colombian Nobel Winner, 1927-2014. This is his 1986 account of the filmmaker Miguel Littin returning clandestinely to his native Chile)

Symposium by Muriel Spark (1918-2006. Excellent 1990 novel about 5 couples at a dinner party by hugely gifted blackly comic Scottish writer)

Late Call by Angus Wilson (1913-1991. Very talented if uneven writer, doyen teacher at the famous UEA Writing MA, whose short stories plus the novel Hemlock and After are fine entertainment. This was his 1964 novel)

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom (born 1933. The best-known novel, published 1980, of the extremely talented Dutch author, who also writes great travel books)

Thy Neighbour’s Wife by Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984. Excellent novel about a troubled priest by one of Ireland’s finest writers, most of whose work is appallingly out of print. I recently published a post about it in these pages)

Wilderness by Liam O’ Flaherty (his compelling 1927 novel)

Lost by Hans Ulrich Treichel (the harrowing tale of a German family fleeing from the Soviet invasion in 1945)

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (born 1963. Gifted Ugandan writer and this his debut novel sold over 100,000 copies)

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark (controversial 2000 novel about a fraudulent psychiatrist)

The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom (inventive and absorbing 1991 novel about a man who wakes up in a different city to where he fell asleep)

The Truth About An Author by Arnold Bennett (1867-1931. My favourite novel of the great man’s is his 1911 The Card turned into an entertaining 1952 movie with Alec Guinness and Petula Clark)

Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1897-1962. The great Deep South writer from Oxford Mississippi best known for The Sound and the Fury)

A Light in August by William Faulkner

Soldier’s Pay by William Faulkner

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch ( I am a paid up fan of Murdoch but I found this too whimsical and plain daft for its own good)

I’m Off by Jean Echenoz (born 1947. Prolific French author, winner of Prix Goncourt)

Kaleidoscope One by Stefan Zweig (1881-1942. Short stories by the great Austrian Jewish writer who committed suicide with his wife in exile in the USA)

Kaleidoscope Two by Stefan Zweig

The Nice and The Good by Iris Murdoch (I loved it on a first reading though less so next time round)

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (born 1961. Bestselling poignant novel about a man and a penguin by leading Ukranian writer who writes in Russian. His work has been translated into 37 languages)

Vatican Cellars by Andre Gide (1869-1951. A novel about saints, pickpockets and con men by the Nobel winner 1947)

The Seville Communion by Arturo Pereze-Reverte (born 1951. Bestselling novel by flamboyant Spanish writer who was once a war correspondent)

Games with Love and Death by Arthur Schniztler (1862-1931. Short stories by the great Austrian Jewish writer whose work was described by Adolf Hitler as Jewish filth)

A Dinner of Herbs by Carla Grissmann (1928-2011. Touching memoir by US travel writer who at one stage lived in Afghanistan)

The Low Life by Alexander Baron (1917-1999. London novelist and screenwriter of Polish Jewish origins. This 1963 novel is about London gamblers, prostitutes and layabouts)

Fowler’s End by Gerard Kersh (1911-1968. Another London Jewish writer who eventually settled in the USA. He was immensely prolific but is little read since his death 50 years ago)

Four Tales by Joseph Conrad

Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway

Nicolas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Hunt The Slipper by Violet Trefusis (1894-1972. Talented and original novelist who was lover of Vita Sackville-West and their relationship was fictionalised in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Her extremely enjoyable novels are available in Virago Classics)

The Case of Sergeant Grisha by Arnold Zweig (1897-1968. No relation of Stefan Zweig, he was a German Jew born in Poland who ended his days in communist East Germany. This bestselling 1927 work is his famous anti-war novel)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1930-2013. This 1958 novel by the Nigerian writer is the most read work in African literature)

No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (his 1960 novel)

Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje (born 1943. A Canadian born in Sri Lanka, author of 1992 The English Patient, and winner of the Booker Prize. This is his 1976 novel)

1956 by Margaret Wilkinson (short stories by American creative writing teacher based in Newcastle University UK)

Lancelot by Walker Percy (1916-1990. New Orleans author who won the National Book Award. This is his 1977 novel)

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

My Father by Jean Renoir (1894-1979. Memoir by eminent film director and author)

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (I recently wrote a post about this. She was the lover of HG Wells and an enormously talented writer)

The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe (born 1961. Successful UK novelist whose work has been televised)

Ten Men by Elisa Segrave (novel by London writer and critic famous for her Diary of a Breast)

Diary of a Breast by Elisa Segrave (about her battle with breast cancer)

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1914-1994. Best known autobiographical novel by eminent black US writer which won the National Book Award in 1953)

The Comedy Man by DJ Taylor (born 1960. Prolific novelist, critic and biographer who wrote the definitive biography of George Orwell)

Moscow Circle by Venedikt Yerofeyev (1938-1990. Wildly funny surreal novel by a dissident whose father spent many years in Stalin’s gulags)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1890-1974. Massively gifted writer who disappeared from view for many years, and this is her prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Born in Dominica in the Caribbean she spent most of her life in the UK)

Cab at the Door by VS Pritchett (1900-1997. Memoir of eminent UK short story writer)

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989. This novel by the eminent travel writer is about the fictionalised life of a slave trader in what is now Benin)

Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904. Born of Irish and Greek parents in Lefkada Greece, hence his name, he moved to Japan in 1890 and became a naturalised citizen and expert Japanologist. This is his 1897 work)

An Indian Summer by James Cameron (1911-1985. Eminent British journalist and this is his 1974 travelogue)

Sean by Eileen O’ Casey (memoir of the great Irish playwright Sean O’ Casey, by his wife)

The Alexandria Semaphore by Robert Sole (born 1946. Distinguished French novelist of Egyptian extraction)

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (born 1941. Major Australian novelist from Adelaide)

The Hacienda by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (born 1954. Superb memoir about her time looking after a huge South American estate when her unstable Venezuelan husband was incapable of doing so. One of my favourite contemporary UK writers)

Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (born 1963. Jewish US writer and this bestselling novel came out in 1988 when he was 25)

Innocence by Pierre Magnan (1922-2012. Gripping novel by superb French crime writer)

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (his 1980 memoir)

The Adventures of Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich (1932-2018. Epic series of satirical novels 1969-2007 by courageous activist who has publically criticised another Vladimir called Putin)

Last Summer by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960. Author of Doctor Zhivago and this is a tender novella about a young Russian tutor reminiscing about his romantic adventures)

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind by Amos Oz (leading Israeli writer born 1939. This is his 1973 novel)

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford (1911-2006. German born writer who lived mostly in the UK. This 1963 novel is about an American heiress)

The Club of Angels by Luis Fernando Verissimo (born 1936. Brazilian writer who is also a journalist, cartoonist and a sax player)

The Mansion by William Faulkner

Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov (1899-1951.Satirical Russian novelist variously liked and loathed by Stalin and sometimes called the Russian George Orwell. He died young of TB)

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

The African Child by Camara Laye (1928-1980. Guinean writer and this his autobiographical novel was published in 1953)

Adrigoole  by Peadar O’ Donnell (1893-1986. Radical Irish Republican born in Donegal whose best novel I think is The Big Windows, 1955. He also edited The Bell at one stage)

Lost Fields by Michael McLaverty (1904-1992, and not to be confused with Bernard McLaverty. Belfast teacher, short story writer, and mentor of Seamus Heaney and John McGahern with whom he fell out. He wrote fine stories about Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland, where he holidayed as a child)

Austerlitz by W G Sebald (1944-2001. Fine highly idiosyncratic German writer teaching in UEA, UK and at the height of his powers, when killed in a car crash. His themes were mostly about memory and forgetfulness, and he had been tipped for the Nobel Prize)

Old Men Forget by Duff Cooper (1890-1954. The 1953 autobiography of Tory politician and diplomat husband of Lady Diana Cooper)

Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771. I am a paid-up fan of the author of Peregrine Pickle, Launcelot Greaves and Humphry Clinker but this novel is well-nigh unreadable, as if written in the bath. Smollett was a Scot and a ship’s surgeon as well as a picaresque novelist)

The Land of Spices by Kate O’ Brien (1897-1974. Fine Limerick writer who would have disappeared from view had it not been for the wonderful Virago Classics. Read all of her novels and you won’t be wasting your time. She also wrote a leftist travelogue called Farewell Spain about the Spanish Civil War. This novel was immediately banned in Ireland when it appeared)

The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986. Author of The Second Sex and lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, this is her 1945 novel)

A Confession by Maxim Gorky (1868-1938. This is his 1908 novel about Russian religious sectarians. Gorky is one of my very favourite writers, and his novels e.g. The Three of Them, The Artamonov Affair and Foma Gordyev are shamefully neglected)

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000. Booker winner and this is her 1980 novel)

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (her 1990 novel)

The Price of Love by Arnold Bennett (a little known but very enjoyable 1914 novel by the great man)

The Journals by Arnold Bennett (more  gripping than some of his lesser novels, at the end of every year he calculates, with no computers or calculators in his day, how many thousand words he wrote and how much dosh he had made)

QED by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946. Lover of Alice B Toklas, this is her 1903 novel about a passionate Lesbian affair. She was both a Jew and an art collector who controversially survived WW2 living in France, and later she praised Marshal Petain of the Vichy collaborationist government)

Southpaw by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (one of my favourite UK writers with family connections to the Channel Isles)

Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866. Satirical novelist and friend of the poet Shelley)

Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett (alas, not one of his best)

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (1917-1967. Deep South writer best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Much praised by Graham Greene and Gore Vidal. This is her 1941 novel)

Renee Mauperin by the Goncourt Brothers (Edmond Goncourt 1822-1896, Jules Goncourt 1830-1970. Famous for their Journals these 2 naturalist writers rarely spent a day apart until Jules’ early death. This is their collaborative 1864 novel)

The Migrant Painter of Birds by Lidia Jorge (born 1946. Superb novel by leading Portuguese writer from Boliqueime in the Algarve , which I reviewed for the Literary Review)

Marcel by Erwin Mortier (born 1965. Stunning 1999 debut by Flemish writer told via a 10-year-old boy, and about the vanishing of the beloved Marcel)

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

Two Brothers by Bernardo Atxaga (born 1951. The 1985 story collection by the best known contemporary author writing in Basque. My favourite book of his is the 1988 Obabakoak)

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1892-1983. Her fine 1918 novel about a traumatised soldier returning from the trenches. Made into a film in 1982 with Alan Bates, Julie Christie and Glenda Jackson)

The Big Windows by Peadar O’ Donnell (my favourite work by the Donegal novelist)

The Weaver’s Grave by Seumas O’ Kelly (1881-1918. The best known short story/ novella of the fine Galway writer who was also a dramatist and journalist)

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch (very enjoyable and worth it for the title alone)

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford (very absorbing and available as a Virago Classic)

The Gospel According To Jesus Christ by Jose Saramago (1922- 2010.The 1991 novel by Portuguese Nobel winner 1998. A phenomenally gifted writer who exercises perfect sentence control and perfect sly wit at the same time. My literary hero)

The Body’s Rapture by Jules Romains (1985-1972. Pen name of French author best known for his vast novel cycle Men of Goodwill. This is his 1933 novel)

Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O’ Brien (her 1938 novel)

That Lady by Kate O’ Brien (her bestselling antifascist historical novel set in Spain, made into a movie in 1955)

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston (born 1940. Very talented Chinese American author)

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (born 1944. This is the massively bestselling 1995 work by the German philosophy professor. I thought it readable and no more)

The Burn by Vasily Aksyonov (1932-2009. The best known 1975 novel of a satirical pro-Western Russian often at odds with the KGB. Aksyonov was also a trained doctor)

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan (born 1950. Moving account of the Northern Irishman’s being held hostage in Beirut from 1986-1990)

Oranges from the Son of Alexander Levy by Nella Bielski (born in Ukraine in the 1930s, she moved to France after marrying a French journalist. Novelist and playwright who often collaborated with the late John Berger)

I’m Dying Laughing by Christina Stead (1902-1983. Satirical Australian novelist who was a committed Marxist. This is her posthumous 1986 work)

Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1871-1900. Highly innovative US writer and this is his best known 1895 novel about the American Civil War)

The Autobiography of Isadora Duncan

Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923. Shocking but accomplished novel by enfant terrible who died of TB aged 20. It is about a 16-year-old boy having an affair with a woman whose husband is away fighting on the front and is part autobiographical. He was a friend of Picasso, Cocteau etc)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

The Little Misery by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970. The 1951 novel by the great writer who won the Nobel in 1952)

Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1932-2018. Acclaimed 1979 novel by Nobel winner 2001. My favourites of his books are Miguel Street and Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companions, both very funny, the former set in backstreet Trinidad and the latter in the genteel UK)

The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P by Brian O Doherty (born 1928. This is the 1992 novel by the Irish artist, art critic and gifted novelist. He is best known for The Deposition of Father McGreevey)

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks (1933-2015. Wonderfully enjoyable 2001 memoir by the famous neurologist)

Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote (1924-1984. This 1980 work by the great ‘Southern Gothic’ writer is a collection of short pieces of both fiction and non-fiction.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006. Fine novel by the great Egyptian author who won the Nobel in 1988)





I will shortly be having some excellent visitors here from the UK, and there will be no new post until on or before Sunday 23rd September


A few Christmases ago here on Kythnos, I received a massive festive parcel from my generous Norfolk girlfriend of the time, Vivian, a brilliant fabric designer. It contained a couple of classy designer shirts, 2 cosmopolitan novels, 2 DVDs one of which had subtitles, a boxed CD set of the Alan Parsons Project, a quarter bottle of gourmet malt whisky (most acceptable), some posh dark chocolate in a fancy gilded box, and as a joke, a double CD of The Complete Christmas Hits of Barry Manilow (very funny, darling, and I even sang along to Rudolph when half way through the malt, when conceivably my own nose might have been not a little rubescent itself). As stocking filler there was again something comical in the form of a Kinder Egg, which you probably know are little chocolate eggs intended for small children, and they invariably have a miniature toy inside of them. When I opened up my Kinder, wrapped in cellophane was a tiny plastic racing car in four parts, each with holes and protrusions for constructing the vehicle. As I say, these kits are intended for the capacities of 4-year-old infants, and a full hour later I was still trying hot faced and sweating to construct the little racing car…and getting nowhere fast.

I have always been hopeless when it comes to what adults call DIY, and the only practical skill I have is my cooking which if you think about it isn’t really a manual skill, but rather, if you are good at it, more like advanced virtuoso botching and improvising to get wherever you want to be. As the youngest of 4 brothers I always found it easy to get others to make or mend things for me, and whenever anyone joked with me that I was the baby of the family, I felt nil embarrassment whatever, but rather was bloody glad that it was so. I was 6 years younger than my next brother, a bank clerk, who was out every night looking for women from 1960 onwards, and my 2 oldest brothers had left home by the time I was in my last year at junior school. Thus it was by the age of 11 I was effectively an only child, and looking round for someone handy to help build a construction kit that I had got for my birthday, my eyes fell upon my legendary mother…

My mother was born in 1915 and so was about 45 when I solicited her good offices to build for me a Woolworth’s plastic model of that far sighted yet no nonsense monarch, Henry VIII. Earlier I had been beguiled by Airfix WW2 aeroplane models but sadly they all had at least 100 parts to glue together and the instructions were a nightmare (holding carefully the top lip of the lower flange B17, attach it by the nipple of the upper lug D94 to the rear of the near-front undercarriage…). However, I have always been good at crafty lateral moves to avoid depressing dead ends, and eventually I discovered an imported American analogue of British Airfix where the parts of the khaki coloured submarine only numbered six and the instructions comprised only 2 sentences. But even then, to my amazed chagrin, I buggered it up by irreversibly gluing one part on upside down so that it was not so much a nifty submarine as a humiliatingly beached narwhal whale…

To my surprise my mother who ran a busy guesthouse and had little free time, graciously accepted the task, and one Saturday afternoon I stood impatiently watching while she glued together Henry VIII. All I wanted was the handsome finished object as depicted on the box, and the quicker she could do that the better, for I wasn’t really interested in the route by which she achieved it, no more than you are in how your car works when you sit down and drive it off. As the smileless monarch was only in about 8 pieces, and the instructions a model of lucidity (glue A to B and then B to C) it was hearteningly child’s play for her, and before long Henry was magically there materialised before our eyes, stern and upright and uncompromising, and aside from his subsequently being painted the right colours (all sanguinary ones right enough) all he needed was his regal staff or distaff or mace or whatever they called it to complete the handsome little model. And it was at this point that my mother made the kind of tragic mistake I would have done, for there was a little hole in the sovereign’s right hand through which one poked the thin staff, and of course one was supposed to make the lower and upper halves of the clasped sign of sovereignty approximately equal. Instead of that, having applied the glue, my mother stuck fast the staff at the very top of Henry’s regal mitt, so that effectively he was balancing a javelin on his closed fist and he did not look so much like a fearless monarch as a Saturday night juggler on a glittering BBC variety show. The 2 of us looked at the juggler and simultaneously realised the implications, and she gulped and swore at herself but I assured her it was fine and we’d soon get used to Henry as a versatile jester, just like Roy ‘Mr TV’ Castle on the BBC. And then I took my beautiful mongrel dog, also called Roy, out on the recreation ground, and threw a stick for him, and was aware that I gave my best friend immense and unfettered joy simply by my act of throwing, which of course dogs cannot do, and which thank God involved no byzantine rigmarole of baffling instructions, you just drew back your arm and let fly…

Soon after I was at the local Grammar School, and in the first few years the teachers there loved nothing more than landing you with a Project, meaning a sustained piece of work on a given theme, nicely illustrated and tidily written, as preparation for independent study no doubt, and who knows, the weighty and world-shaking PhD you might embark on in a decade’s time (Henry VIII – Model Sovereign or Clownish Mountebank?). My first project was in English and we were supposed to write about an author of our choice. I went one better and wrote about two authors, who as it turned out had little in common other than they evidenced variations on my own first name: namely Jonathan Swift and John Buchan. I have no idea now why I chose Swift as aside from watching a cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels I had studied none of his works. However, in the school library I unearthed a scholarly pamphlet on the great man and copied large chunks of it, the abiding memory being that I there first learned the word ‘eleemosynary’ (it means ‘charitable’ and he was, you remember, a clergyman) and that somewhere in his writings he talks about someone pissing on a fire to put it out. I’d have loved to have quoted the gleeful urinary vandalism but didn’t dare, though I did slap down the eleemosynary and got an A off the friendly English teacher who happened to know someone who knew my bank clerk brother who as I said was always chasing after West Cumbrian women. Far more comprehensible was my infatuation with John Buchan (1875-1940) author of The Thirty Nine Steps, Mr Standfast and Prester John. Buchan was a typical staid conservative administrator of his day, as well as Governor General for Canada at one stage, but he knew how to tell a good story and have a 12-year-old gripped by his ingenious narratives, albeit his prose was sometimes wonderfully dreadful. For example, in one of his novels, when he writes about the business of schoolboy banter, he talks about ‘the occult chaff of fresh-faced boys’…

That same year I was assigned a project by the science teacher on Astronomy and we could tackle it any way we liked. From my parents’ bookshelves I duly ferreted out a dated encyclopaedia series called Practical Knowledge For All, which I can thoroughly recommend if you see its familiar black spines in the junk baskets in any second hand bookshop, as it has excellent sections on teaching yourself German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. I turned to the astronomy section and copied out vast learned chunks about Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and the memorably named Tycho Brahe. It was all wise and admirable stuff, but I blew it as usual by illustrating a full eclipse not with harmless crayons, but with a leaking fountain pen so it looked as if someone had shit a mass of demented black blue on my otherwise pristine pages. The teacher gave me a B and said other than the terrifying eclipse it was flawless.

By now you are wondering what has happened to the scheming little schoolboy weaselling any necessary help motif, but be patient for at last we have arrived. That same year some other teacher assigned a project for which I chose my own rather virtuous theme of ‘The History of The Police’. Over half a century later, I am currently tormented by the fact I cannot decide which teacher accepted that as a suitable topic. The Police? We did no General Studies until the 6th form, nor can police have come under the aegis of Geography or History, so I am left with the only option of English, on the remote though feasible grounds that writing about anything will demonstrate linguistic expertise and the essay skills of organisation, development of an argument etc. Bear in mind that I was a favourite of the same young English teacher who had a lisp and blushed a lot and that he knew someone who knew my brother who was still chasing West Cumbrian women, especially walkers and climbers, as much as he could. What I mean is I could have chosen Akkadian Cuneiform or The History of Theosophy or Bare Arse Naturism as my project and the teacher would have enthusiastically given it the go ahead and given me an A without even reading it.

I set to with my project once I found a little illustrated book in the school library about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, The Mounties. Much of it was about a notorious recent detection case involving an RCMP team pursuing a violent robber through the snow laden Yukon in the late 1950s. The story was gripping but went on over about 5000 words and I had no editing skills aged 12, so just doggedly transcribed the whole bloody lot. I was sat there till 10pm many a night and my mother started to worry and thought perhaps I might sprain or strain something in the shape of my pre-adolescent brain. Worse still, once the Mounties were out of the way, I still had to tackle the history of the British police and the project might have ended up mythologically immense and unachievable, had it not been for the fact that we had our boarding house guest Claude, who came in such a timely fashion to my aid. Claude was a striking man in his early 50s, meaning born around 1910, and he was from Burnley, Lancashire and like many Lancastrians who have had hard and sometimes impoverished lives, was surpassingly kind, friendly and viscerally warm to all and sundry. He was tall, had a rugged forceful face with a very red complexion, hair slicked back and he always wore a tidy dark blue suit. He had some managerial job at a new factory being built near Workington, and he loved his lodgings with us as my mother’s cooking delighted him beyond words, both the flavour and the copiousness of it, for she provided homemade soups and sweets as well as the generous entrees. He carried his plates back after both dinner and breakfast, and made a speech every time about how excellent the cuisine was, and by way of testimonial he gave her a sizeable box of Cadbury’s Milk chocolates every Friday evening before he drove back home to Burnley for the weekend.

One evening Claude saw me doing my arduous homework and asked what it was about. I explained rather shyly that it was all about the police and law enforcement, and that I had finished with the Mounties and now had to tackle the history of the British constabulary. Claude then looked at me with a poignant wonderment and said:

“I used to be a policeman you know. I was a copper myself…”

I stared at our Lancastrian lodger and tried to control my excitement. “A policeman?”

“For ten years down in Preston. Meaning I pounded the beat from ‘47 to ‘57. The things I’ve seen, son. The good and the bad. And of course the truly bloody monstrous.”

Before long he was explaining his daily routine and I was scribbling it zealously down. Traffic control, lost property, drunken fights, cat burglary, one or two ugly murders (Preston is a biggish town, you see) standard crime like theft and GBH and committing a public nuisance, street pissing, but also caring pastoral duties that the police and no one else are obliged to deal with as no one else would voluntarily take them on.

I paused from my scribbling. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean clattering on a door like a messenger from hell, and telling a woman that her husband has just been killed in a car crash. Or even worse a small child. Or the nightmare of the husband and the child, no once it was two children, all killed together in the same drink driving crash.  I’ve done those bloody awful jobs more times than I can remember.”

I gaped at his fog screen memory of informing someone of the truly unbearable. As a kid of twelve, none of it would have occurred to me of course, but I suspect there are adults in 2018 to whom none of it has occurred either. Then I pulled a face and said that I had to provide some illustrations for my project, strictly hand drawings that is, as photos and newspaper clippings were not permitted.

I scowled and added, “The trouble is I can’t bloody draw to save myself.”

Claude’s purple visage smiled so expansively it actually filled the room. “But I can. I mean I can have a bloody go.”

He asked me what I wanted him to sketch and immediately I said a policeman in a uniform exactly like himself when he was in Preston five years ago. I handed him my pencil case and a packet of crayons and in about twenty minutes he had what looked like a Michelangelo to me. Claude had taken great care over the uniform, the number and size of the buttons, the braiding, the elaborate stitching on the cap. The policeman was very burly and looked touchingly like a caricature or twin of Claude himself with his body tapering strangely outwards as you looked from the waist up to the head and the hat.

“That’s brilliant,” I said with absolute sincerity. “That’s really great.”

And then I asked him to dictate the labelling, meaning the explanation of his drawing, and I realised I was getting it from the horse’s mouth, and that his expertise was impregnable as his memories were only five years old. I told him with absolute confidence that I would get an A and I would also add a note giving him as one of the sources, so that he would have his share in my success.

“Shake on it. That’s very big of you to share your hard-won marks with a duffer like me…”

I snorted. “Hardly. It’s your drawing will get me the A, Claude. Otherwise it might well be a B plus, cos my Mountie sketch looks like a cartoon, like Top Cat’s Policeman Dibble, not a man.” I paused then realised something important. “I need to know your surname to put you down as my source. I’ve no idea. What is it, Claude?”

He lit up a Capstan Full Strength and I noted that he almost proffered me one, then realised that twelve was a bit young for a proper man’s fag and I might well cough my youthful guts out.

“Leadbitter,” he said as he exhaled. “First the Lead and then the Bitter. It’s as common as muck in my bit of Burnley.”