THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 7th November

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

Anyone who has watched enough TV documentaries or  sultry atmospheric movies set in the US Deep South will be aware of the kind of intense devotional fervour witnessed in Black American  Pentecostal churches, the kind of place where the (usually male) preacher is right there with the congregation in the thick of it, not at a polite rhetorical distance as witnessed in White Anglican C of E where the dog collar alone is enough to mark our the long established demarcations. Because the gospel singing in these places is regularly of a high artistic order, normally cynical secular liberals will often give these devotees the benefit of the doubt, and generously refrain from autopilot derision. What characterises those black churches is that the worship is one of often feverish adoration, involving staccato and sustained repetition of key phrases like Praise The Lord, Say No To The Devil, I Full of Holy Ghost Power and so on. To put things in  a comprehensive spiritual context, a similar tradition of intoxicating repetitive chant in Classical Hinduism is called Bhakti or Devotion and has an honourable history going back to the great Bengali Vaishnavite prophet Chaitanya (1486-1534). The same thing was observable more entertainingly (for some) at its peak in the 1970s, in the joyous dancing and mantra repetition of the Hare Krishna devotees (white British as a rule and originally called perhaps Derek or Deirdre) outside of sundry Central London Tube stations.

At the start of the 1997 The Apostle, directed by and starring celebrity actor Robert Duvall (born 1931) as charismatic preacher Sonny, there is a flashback to 1939 when as a little white boy of about 4, he is brought into a Black Pentecostal church somewhere in rural Texas, his hand clutched by his stout old family servant. The sumptuously dressed black preacher has a gorgeous (and rather unlikely in 1939) perfectly tailored white suit. He is in the thick of his congregation and is dancing on the spot in his spiritual excitement as he roars out his devotion to the Lord in the form of saying the same brief imperative or assertion over and over again until he reaches a crescendo. Cue then many of the women worshippers falling into something close to a deep hypnotic trance as they repeat all he said, ever louder and ever more exultant. Convincingly then, by the age of 12, the boy Sonny (full name, and this is important, Euliss F Dewey) has already felt himself to be saved for Jesus and he becomes a roaring boy preacher whose very youth and innocence make him all the more charismatic and adorable to the surrounding congregation, most of them black, even in segregated 1940s Texas…

We now switch to the present day, the mid 90s, where Sonny aged about 60 is in something of a crisis. His wife Jessie, also a deeply religious woman is played by the late great Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) a gifted actress who here has an unconvincing and disappointing part for she patently is obliged to underact and has no significant speeches nor offers any focused dramatic power of note. What makes this film a flawed masterpiece is that essentially it is a one-man film, for it is the director Duvall who we are watching from start to finish, and it is almost as if he has forgotten to ensure the rest of the cast give all they have got. Meanwhile Jessie has successfully agitated within their church to have her husband removed from the governing committee on account of his bullying if genial tyranny and volatile character. For the same reason she has started an adulterous affair with a younger and very religious man called Horace (played by Todd Allen) though she assures angry Sonny there will be no problem with access to their young children. At one point, Sonny tries to intimidate her into reconciliation with an ugly feigned violence which he then disowns with his always charming chuckles. Very obviously this devout Pentecostal is capable of being a very unpleasant man. One minute he is tenderly hugging his children and jovially testing them with the sequence of the books in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job!) the next minute he turns up in his car at the Little League baseball game where they are playing, having taken a sly slug from a bottle of bourbon.  He is in an evil mood and grabs both Jessie and the kids and tries to drag them who knows where. The spectators try to stop it and Horace his rival comes and gently dissuades him, whereupon the man of God grabs a baseball bat and swipes him viciously across the skull. To everyone’s horror Horace collapses into a coma from which he never surfaces. Seemingly unrepentant Sonny flees the scene to inform a buddy called Joe (country singer Billy Joe Shaver, born 1939) of what he has done and adds that he gave him what he was due. Joe who Sonny had converted and rescued from the gutter, vows to keep him informed of what happens with Horace and the police, whereupon Sonny drives off in the pouring rain as a resolute fugitive.

Soon he is inspired to ditch the car in a deep river and thereafter he stumbles into a nearby wood where like something out of the Southern gothic of Flannery O’ Connor he bumps into an old one-legged black man who staggers about on crutches and is currently fishing for catfish using a hickory stick as a rod.  The old man accepts Sonny’s edited tale that he is obliged under the Lord’s guidance to seek out a new life, and lets him stay in his grandkids’ playtent outside his tumbling shack that is in the middle of the woods.  Sonny then grills him as to whether he knows of a famous black preacher called Brother Blackwell, and sure enough the angler directs him to a small town in Louisiana. After rebaptising himself as a new man, EF, in the river where the old man fishes, Sonny eventually arrives at Blackwell’s town by bus. There like the remarkably adaptable opportunist he is, he soon befriends a shy white mechanic called Sam (played by Walton Goggins, born 1971, best known for the TV series Justified) as he helps him to sort out a car engine that has Sam flummoxed. Part of Sonny’s magnetic charisma is that he is one of those men who can never be defeated, for he can turn his hand to anything, and from a window above, the manager of a Gospel radio station who also owns the garage shouts down and offers him work as a mechanic. Sam likewise offers the impressive stranger free lodgings in a spacious homestead left him by rich relatives. It is then time to seek out Brother Blackwell, played very ably by John Beasley (born 1943) familiar from the CSI TV series. Blackwell has retired from preaching and when Sonny asks him can he therefore take over his spiritual role and his vacated church, though friendly, the older man challenges him sharply:

“And why should I trust you? Coming out of nowhere like you are? Tell me that? Now I am going to be watching you for a while… and God is going to be watching you too.”

Sonny grins and fearlessly proves his mettle by taking on an extra job to fund the renovation of Blackwell’s old shack of a church, stuck out in the remote countryside. He begins evening shifts in a burger bar as well as being a mechanic during the day, and in his spare time and boundlessly energetic, he has Sam, Blackwell and numerous small children helping with the refurbishment (the kids hilariously do all the inside repainting in a holy white). Soon the church is ready and tireless Sonny even acquires and mends an old red bus which he uses to pick up the worshippers from distant farms. All the small congregation bar Sam are black countryfolk and include an overweight lady in her Sunday best, and her 2 little boys in natty suits both carrying miniature guitars which they cannot play. Once ensconced in his new church Sonny stomps into frenetic preaching in the form of repeating ever louder:

Holy Ghost Power, Holy Ghost Power, WE GOT HOLY GHOST POWER!

After ten minutes of which he has the women at the front going into rapturous trances, and Brother Blackwell suddenly looking at him with a proprietorial admiration. All would seem to be going to plan but the trouble with being a charismatic Pentecostal preacher, is that you can also forfeit commonsense and believe yourself to be invulnerable. Sonny then makes a serious error by deciding to broadcast on the Gospel radio station above the garage where he works. The portly bespectacled station manager is infinitely sympathetic, but shrewdly asks for money up front as air time has to be paid for, is not free. That means Sonny has to work all the harder to afford both the church and the radio access, and as a third and you might say more intelligibly human factor, all of a sudden potential romance steps into his fugitive existence when the beautiful radio station secretary, Tootsie, played by UK actress Miranda Richardson (born 1958) enters his life. There is a problem though, which she is separated not divorced from her husband, so that when Sonny wines and dines her on a Louisiana riverboat and later attempts to get her into bed, she gently refuses him. As a man of God, he ought to accept this patient restraint of course, but Sonny is human all too human, and again oddly unrepentant about his flaws and failures whether they be that of would be fornicator or first-degree murderer. The real import of the radio broadcasts though, in terms of cinematic power, is Duvall’s astonishing acting when he goes into full Pentecostal frenzy on air, so much so that the manager confides to him that all the listeners out there, unless they know otherwise, assume he must be black, he cannot possibly be a white preacher.

A strange and unsatisfactory set piece happens next, when a disgruntled young white man in a baseball cap enters one of Sonny’s services and demands to know who EF is and what this service is all about. The stranger is played by the hugely talented Coen Bros regular Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who here like Farrah Fawcett is not being pushed to his considerable limits. This nuisance rudely interrupts the service and after his interrogation, then refusing to join in the worship, he adds as a calm aside:

“I ain’t going to be in here among a load of niggers.”

When this disturbing pest refuses to go away, ever versatile Sonny takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and beats him up very effectively outside the church. The troublemaker then slopes off threatening appropriate vengeance, and when Sonny next hosts a church tea party to raise necessary funds, Billy Bob Thornton turns up with a bulldozer and threatens to demolish the church. Sonny, who let us not forget is an unrepentant murderer, urges him to desist, and then is inspired to lay an open Bible across his path. This stops the crazy man in his tracks, and when he gets down to remove the Bible, he suddenly goes into spiritual crisis, and lo and behold is on the spot converted by the man he hates, and who will not explain himself, namely EF. The trouble with this set piece is that there is nil background explanation as to why Billy Bob is as he is, and indeed he is listed in the credits merely as Troublemaker. Once again and as with Farrah Fawcett and even Miranda Richardson, Duvall is underusing these considerable talents while making massive demands on himself as the central unarguably towering character.

Nemesis comes when Jessie at home with her children in Texas picks up on her radio a stray Gospel station and hears the startling initials EF (as in Euliss F Dewey) and an appalling and all too familiar voice preaching at full throttle the indestructible Word. She alerts the Texas police and they notify their Louisiana colleagues, and soon a lone sheriff walks into the chapel shack and patiently waits for it to end before arresting EF for first degree murder. Sonny takes a good half hour to complete unfinished business including movingly bringing timid, weeping, white mechanic bachelor Sam to the Lord. He then with a spring in his step goes out and accepts the handcuffs and true to form guys and jokes with the sheriffs who humbly address him as sir. The end of the film has him leading a Texas chain gang in devotional chants and there is Sonny still smiling, perennially victorious, and also of course still infantilised and arguably half mad.

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THE ISLAND CALLED SURREAL

The next post will be on or before Thursday 1st November

THE ISLAND CALLED SURREAL

Living on a small and obscure Greek island you would expect things to be considerably different, a mite more primitive and ad hoc compared to sophisticated Athens, and even more so than say genteel Canterbury UK and even legendarily cosmopolitan New York, USA. The choices you have when confronted by something that seems preposterous or outright crazy, or even blatantly cruel, are to either laugh or be angry or be sad, and most often you will find yourself juggling frustratingly with all three inadequate options.

Let’s start with the undeniably comical. There are 4 busy supermarkets here in the port and I will anonymise them as Corinth 1 and Corinth 2 and Patras and Sparti (no relation, I promise, of your beloved  local Spar). Sizeable Corinth 1 and the much smaller Corinth 2, are owned by the same family and are about a mile apart.  Corinth 1 supplies all the goods to be found in its satellite Corinth 2, meaning anything should be the same price in both shops. Alas, and if only it were thus. In Corinth 1, a tin of kidney beans costs 75 cents and in Corinth 2 the identical tin costs 1 euro 80 cents, i.e. well over twice as much. It has been like that for the last 5 years and no one including me has the nerve to point out the puzzling inconsistency, or maybe they don’t even notice it. As a vegetarian cook I ingeniously solve the problem simply by taking a rucksack and buying my kidney beans en masse from Corinth 1, a bracing 20 minute walk from where I live. Meanwhile in arguably dubious Corinth 2 a 250g pack of standard Lavazza coffee is 5.20 euros and of the decaffeinated kind 3.90, which more or less corresponds to the price differences everywhere in Greece aside from baffling island Supermarket Patras just up the road. There the standard quality coffee is also 5.20, but the decaf variant is, as in some nightmare should you be allergic to caffeine, outrageously expensive: 7.70 euros, or nearly twice as much as in Corinth 2. Note that all these prices are more or less crazy and extortionate in UK supermarket terms, but for anyone in the known universe to be asking £7 for a crumpled little pack of Italian decaf is surely absolutely, transcendentally nuts. For a start Greek wages are about 60% of UK wages, and even worse a dietician friend of mine informs me any decaf coffee, no matter how posh the brand name, is actually more hazardous than the standard kind on account of the brutish chemical process applied to remove the noxious caffeine.

Now let’s turn to dogs and their peculiar situation on this island. Take note I won’t be mentioning cats as I have adverted to them so many times on these pages, and also be aware that the number of dogs on the whole of the island, only one of them a pitiably homeless stray, amounts to a tiny fraction of the feline and invariably feral population. In the old days Greek animal welfare used to be non-existent, partly a function of the fact that within living memory (an appalling Fascist junta ruled the country 1967-1974) Greece was a conspicuously poor nation. More than 40 years on, out in the countryside it is still the frequent and obnoxious practice that when a dog is no longer a pup, it is turned into a farmer’s guard dog and will be tied up with a barrel for its permanent home. It will never be released nor given exercise in its lifetime, and the only attention it will get will be its daily food and the occasional removal of its excrement. And here we need to point out the obvious, namely that old-fashioned Greeks and especially dyed in the wool rural smallholders, simply cannot imagine what it is like to be an animal, indeed it would be regarded as an idiocy to do so, nor that to be chained to a barrel for eternity is any kind of torment as such. So it is that when people live historically hard lives, they are not usually tender about the feelings of working animals, much less feral cats or feral dogs. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that miracles can happen, and things can change beyond belief, and I was fascinated last year to talk to a German lady who has lived in Kypseli, Athens for many years. Kypseli is one of the poorer parts of the city and she said that in the 80s and 90s its inhabitants did not hide their severe dislike of ‘unhygienic’ dogs and resented any foreigner such as herself bringing one into its confines, even if they kept it on a lead and had trained it not to bark. But now, these days, behold Kypseli and especially its legendary Fokonos Tou Negri Square is unashamed Dog City and like my native West Cumbria, is steaming dog-daft. Now in 2018 its citizens proudly and adoringly parade their poodles, Alsatians, Great Danes, Borzois, spaniels,  and cross ply lolloping mutts (notable for their splendid mongrel hybrid vigour) day and night and nothing is more delightful than to see a pintsize Yorkshire terrier and a donkey sized Great Dane sporting together like Laurel and Hardy in blissful amity.

Now back to Kythnos. If you walk to the far end of the bay here in the port there are an extended bunch of 1970s white painted flats, all with flat roofs, most likely built in the Junta era. About a year ago a young local couple with 2 little boys and a baby girl acquired a beautiful young cross-bred pup and for the first few weeks lavished a very moving affection on it, including unheard of things like sedate walks on leads and even taking it off in their 4 wheel drive for real walks, for strenuous and hilarious exercise in far flung bays. Then as anyone might have predicted the novelty all too obviously wore off. So what did they do, meaning what executive decision did the parents, the responsible adults in this poignant scenario, take apropos something they had tired of? They could have had the dog put to sleep by the island vet as others might have, but instead they ingeniously decided to confine it up there on the flat roof which it clearly never ever leaves. It is not allowed in their house now that it is no longer a gorgeous pup, nor incredibly is it chained up for its own safety. Instead it is free to run to the perimeters of the very high roof, and from there it barks loudly at all the passers-by, though thankfully shows no signs of kamikaze leaping. The one saving grace of its bloody awful Simon Stylites existence, and it is no thanks to its deplorable owners, is that it is clearly not distressed by its aerial incarceration. If it were it would whine or howl but instead all it ever does is bark and race backwards and forwards with excitement at the approach of sundry strangers, very often oblivious yachtie tourists.

I think I am just possibly the only one in the port who notices this crazy top floor banishment and is at all upset by it. If anyone did this in the UK half the surrounding population would be ringing the RSPCA and putting mugshots of the neglectful culprits on fb, so that the couple would panickingly race up there onto the Fascist Junta flat roof and retrieve the dog and stick it on a cushioned sofa in their best sitting room with a couple of brisola chops to gnash on, and the telly tuned to vintage episodes of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, just to let the animal know it was in fact worthy of being genuinely loved and had not after all been born in vain.

ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 24th October

ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

Nazi sympathiser and ferocious anti-semite, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) author of the remarkable Death on the Instalment Plan and Voyage to The End of the Night, was so scrupulous about his fiction writing that he used to hang every individual page on a washing line with pegs, so that he could scrutinise them better. Another French genius and far more sympathetic was the Provence writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) who declared that when it came to his novels he held up every single word to the light, as if he were examining a jewel and then gauging whether it were fit for purpose. If you think he was guilty of hyperbole I advise you to go away and read his autobiographical childhood novel Blue Boy (English translation 1948, reissued US North Point Press 1980) which in my view is the most beautiful not to say tender book ever written by anyone anywhere, and where the vividness and precision and stereoscopic richness of the prose are quite simply off the scale and unbelievable.

Giono believed in weighing every word, while I as a fiction writing teacher of 32 years, can assure you there are many would be writers who don’t even examine entire sentences minutely, nor even entire paragraphs, nor even entire chapters, and in the dizziest cases their entire novel or short story. They just plonk it all down as if it were papier mache or pizza dough, and they hope for the best. The commonest habit is to use ready-made phrasing, a sure indicator that they are not looking at their characters and seeing them with full clarity, because if they were their prose likewise would demonstrate clarity and precision. These things all hang together in a structural manner, because clarity or vividness of characterisation results in vividness of plot, vividness of descriptive writing, vividness of dialogue etc. Hence anyone who does formula characterisation, also does formula dialogue and formula plot, and there is no such thing as a writer who writes brilliant dialogue but has 2-dimensional characterisation.

Sometimes derivative phrasing goes hand in hand with ignorance of what a word actually means. In 1984 I founded and edited a fiction magazine called Panurge for 6 years (David Almond of Skellig fame edited it another 6 years). That meant I had to read literally thousands of unsolicited short stories (being highly ethical, as all my friends know, I refuse to solicit anything and especially possible genius in manuscript). You would not believe, dear reader, how many ambitious fiction writers out there love the word ‘disinterested’ and how few of them have a clue what it means. It does not mean ‘uninterested’ which is what they think, but it means behaving in an impartial manner and exercising no partisan interest nor seeking any personal reward. So if someone says ‘I want someone who will behave in a disinterested manner in this project’ they don’t mean they want them to be bored by it, they mean they want them to behave in a neutral manner without personal or partial motive. If you think this demonstrates finicky pedantry on my part, and that there’s a sporting chance the rest of the short story might demonstrate ability and even excellence, you would almost certainly be wrong. The same author when trying to evoke character might very likely a paragraph later say, e.g. that ‘William strode purposefully towards the door’. This is a good example of the delightful strategy of Rent an Adverb where the adverb , the ‘-ly’ word, drops on the page and deathlike coagulates and clots just like UHU glue (Yoohoo! Here I am and I’m a good old adverb!). ‘Purposefully’, when used by a skilful writer and with possibly other adjectival phrase elaboration can work on the page, but 9 times out of 10 with would be writers it is just slapped down on the page with a wishful thinking alacrity. Their character strides with a purpose, yes, but what sort of purpose, what kind of nuance are we talking about? And is it the case that William (Willy or Willum to his wife in bed in moments of high passion?) is always purposeful in what he does or just in this particular moment of time in Ted Warbelow’s 5000 word story Limbo in Leicester and note that Ted also lives in downtown Leicester.

Another regular unblushing hero in among the thousands of manuscripts I read between 1984 and 1996, was the 2-adjective phrase ‘a harsh metallic sound’. At least 3 times a week when I could be getting up to 60 stories in the same period, as sure as shot there would be a story where some plodding character usually in a stagnant present tense narrative (‘Joe walks purposefully down to the town centre’) would hear ‘a harsh, metallic sound’. Because the whole world of would be fiction writers was using it, the phrase by definition must be derivative cliché, but it is worth examining it in more detail to understand the depressing realities of authorial myopia. For a start I’m not sure I know what a metallic sound is but let’s suppose it is something like an iron bar being struck by another bit of metal. Would you say such a sound is truly harsh? Is it not possible that with all the different types of metal, both that which strikes and that which is struck, there are umpteen subtle yet describable possibilities of what the sound is like. Try as hard as I can I cannot see nor hear anything like harshness, which in any case is usually applied to humans as in a punitive parent or a judge, and not to inanimate objects.

Again, this is not me being finicky nor fastidious nor nit picking (all of which three adjectives have slightly different nuances but Ted from Leicester doesn’t know as much and unless undergoing a salutary existential transformation one day, never will). Those who write harsh metallic sound, might also describe one of their characters as a ‘typical suave middle-aged businessman’. A quick analysis soon reveals that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ businessman (compare and contrast Sir Richard Branson and Sir Horace Parse-Suffix who is very big in equities if not equalities. Not that Rich is big on democracy either). Suave? OK, suave, but in what way? Suave could be anything from wearing a natty bow tie costing £4.99, to a pair of designer jeans with deliberate holes in them acquired from Harvey Nix in Leeds for £500…

And then best of all, middle-aged. These days in 2018 you are not even remotely middle-aged till you are 55 and you cease to be so somewhere around 70 and even then, you are not ‘old’ given the myriad number of 70 plus folk on internet dating sites and who without demur queue for up to 20 hours to purchase the latest Apple phone. Precision, vividness is what is needed when describing either a businessman or a tramp or a raving lunatic, and the reason for that is that ‘vivid’ is from the Latin ‘vivo’, meaning ‘I live’…

If you write vividly you put life into your pages, your characters, your plot, your art. And if you don’t, and you can’t, and your prose is generally more like candy floss or polyfilla or something set-in-aspic, then apropos all that wasted effort, and for your own sake as much as the rest of the world, you might ask yourself why it is you are bothering?

IF YOU HAVE THE AUTUMN BLUES

I am going to be very busy till the end of the month, and the next post will be on or before Tuesday 30th October

IF YOU HAVE THE AUTUMN BLUES…

Instant Liberation For Any Downtrodden Woman

If you are a woman worn down by too many marital problems, take a very useful lesson from the Hebrideans of Tiree, Uist, Lewis etc most of whom still speak Scottish Gaelic in 2018, for they have learnt the valuable self-protective art of the distant and the impersonal. Be aware that in that sonorous and venerable language, they don’t say anything as straightforward as ‘I am a teacher’ but they say instead ‘There is a teacher within me!’  (Se tidsear a tha annam).

So, the next time your unpleasant, overweight and puffy-eyed slob of a husband or partner bawls, ‘You are a bone idle, selfish woman and a terrible housekeeper who never gets off her lazy backside’ just you go Gaelic and shoot back with infinite scathing irony at him:

“Yes, there is a bone idle, selfish woman and terrible housekeeper who never gets off her lazy backside, and who is within me!”

At once you are absolved of all spurious responsibility for the ludicrous demon that is there inside you, according to the deluded Milord Hubby. When your oppressor opens his mouth in mute amazement, make sure you have ready a large carrot or prize leek and ram it hard in his capacious gob and keep him thus at his deservedly helpless, hopeless level

A Holiday That is An Orgy

An old US friend of mine is notorious for writing emails that she shoots off without checking for typos, sometimes with hilarious and/or baffling results. Her best yet, and it had me laughing all day, was her reference to a recent US pubic holiday. At once my imagination stirred and filled in the gaps and painted oh so vivid a picture. Yours too, eh? Bring it on, eh! Let’s a have ‘a pubic holiday’ ASAP! Yes, yes, I’m for it, put me down for it without delay. You too? No? I don’t believe you. I think you’re more than ready for a pubic holiday, given that awful anti-social, unspeakable guy you’ve been with, Lord knows why, for 17 years, the one who drives you round the bend with his finicky ifs and buts and can effortlessly go silent on you for a fortnight if you’ve gone and burnt his breakfast toast…

Good old murderers

Ari, aged 55, who works in the Fermina taverna is from Gabrovo, Bulgaria, has 2 grown kids and 2 grandkids, and is married to a Greek woman who also works in the Fermina. He is famed for his dry wit and by way of debate and to get him going, I sometimes mention the only Bulgarian politician I know Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) the one-time authoritarian communist president. Not just Ari but all the Bulgarians here in the port say with such profound nostalgia what a great time it was pre-1989 under arthritic tyrannical communism, for however bad it was, they add, everyone had a job, and now they could do with going back to those halcyon times, for the place is such an anarchic mess these days.  I always argue the toss, but it makes no difference and they look upon me sympathetically as a pampered old Brit living inexplicably in down at heel Greece who knows nothing whatever of extreme corruption and extreme poverty.

One day suddenly I spontaneously improvised, and after saying ‘Zhivkov’ to Ari added, ‘Stalin’, as if to indicate the calibre of the bloodless rogue who Ari amiably venerated.

What Ari said then took my breath away. For apropos Josef Stalin aka Josev Dlugashvili, he said:

Kalo pedhi!

 Great lad! Great boy!

It was as if he was talking about his favourite uncle and it was like a Zen awakening, a paradox beyond imagining. He was joking about the worst mass murderer in all of human history, who made the atrocious genocides of Adolf Hitler look like minute beer indeed. I immediately started to laugh hilariously along with the straight-faced humourist because if course it was the only proper response, this mordant aching wretched gallows humour in the face of the impossible and the unbearable and of an evil so great it went off the scale and kept on going.

FACEBOOK, ARSEBOOK, FART’S MOAN

The next post will be on or before Thursday October 11th

FACEBOOK, ARSEBOOK, FART’S MOAN

I have now been on Facebook for 5 months and it has been a hell of an education. Like all of the recent significant and decidedly positive changes in my life, it was not my own initiative, but that of my daughter Ione aged 29, an automation test engineer currently living in Leeds, UK. It was her intelligent inspiration that put me on a dating site 4 years ago, in order to sort out my widower’s serendipity love life; she who in 2014 got me to start writing again after a 5-year block, by urging me to start up the blog you’re currently reading; she who got me a smartphone which came some 4 months after my hesitant appearance on Facebook. For it is a fact that at first I obstinately resisted every one of Ione’s ground-breaking suggestions, while now I am infinitely grateful she pushed me in the radically convergent directions that she did…

Put your hands up if you know what single thing is the lifeblood and ineffable heartbeat of fb? Yes, that’s right, the photograph, invariably taken by that other indispensable accessory and smirking twin sibling of fb, the smartphone. Take away all the photographs from every fb post that have ever existed and you have absolutely nothing left, literally nothing to write home or abroad about. These photos range from tenderly captured evening sunsets in e.g. the UK Lake District, Montenegro, Ulan Bator, Ipswich, Ramsbottom, the Haugh of Urr, or in my case, Kythnos, which inevitably receive umpteen loyal Likes, to that charming phenomenon of the Updated Profile Photo of conscientious fb aficionados, some of whom change their profile at least once a week. I note to my surprise that both genders in their late 60s and older, who you think in their latter years might have learnt a few salutary lessons when it comes to personal modesty, often take very seriously this presentation of themselves, and see it as virtually a matter of life and death. Almost every day in the Newsfeeds you will see a smiling woman of say 69, with a new and stylish haircut and possibly her old black cat Walter on her shoulder or half obscuring her handsome face, as the new and vital and regenerated avatar of Liz or Sall or Ros. A more comical variant is when some of the Kythnos Albanian lads in their early 20s, friends of mine who work as waiters in the cafes here, regularly put up posts that are exclusively new and flattering mugshots of themselves, and absolutely nothing else. Fb for them is a vehicle for showing themselves as dazzlingly handsome heroes, new Skanderbegs or in the Greek context pallikaris (noble warriors) and I can’t imagine any one of these young men even vaguely feeling that what they are doing is just possibly an unedited expression of personal vanity. They are more like 6-year-old kids saying, Aren’t I beautiful Mummy? and no mother nor indeed anyone else, is likely to tick them off for their artless boasting.

Because photos and instant visual impressions prevail, that means the written word is always subsidiary to the visual and invariably trailing far behind, often half embarrassed. Much of the time people are putting up what used to be called family photo albums and a great many mothers stick up pics of their adorable toddlers, guaranteed to generate an avalanche of likes from all and sundry. Equally you get young couples showing themselves in tanned and sunny happiness on foreign holidays, the only problem being that possibly a few months later they will not be couples and their status ‘Ginnie White is in a relationship with Tommy Brown’ has had to have the latter erased in favour of Dickie Black. There is always an alternative to just Liking any post, which is to add a Comment and it surprised me at first how rare any considered comments are compared to Likes or Smiley Face emojis. When people do comment they are often patently unsure of themselves and write a la pub shorthand conversation on the lines of ‘lovely darling’, ‘so fab’, or the textspeak of ‘you luk great luv’ etc. I would very much emphasise that none of this process is to be despised, for the simple reason that fb is not about highlighting the exceptional and the exclusive among us, those who have had all the spotlight and the lavish blandishments hitherto. Where fb excels and I am not being cynical but wholly approving here, is that it gives a new and radical dignity to ordinary folk who are not particularly literate nor well read nor opinionated nor even moderately confident about their ideas, but just ordinary people who want to show you a friendly photo  of their lovably barmy husband or their crazy dog or their gorgeous baby or the hideous flood outside their house after all the pissing rain.

What it amounts to is that fb does not as a rule celebrate the exceptional and the fascinating, but it makes everyone equal and everyone on the same level and it celebrates the very ordinariness and universality of the fb community. One radical, and wholly admirable consequence of this is that for the first time in human history pre and post the internet, arguably dull people living predictable and mundane lives and with nothing much to brag about, suddenly do have something to brag about. As long as they have a smartphone and a fb account they can slap up an amusing pic of some disastrous upside-down cake they made last night, or of their doughty, wizened and moustachioed aunty who is 92  today and has most of her own teeth, or their Alsatian dog licking their tabby cat or the tabby licking the German shepherd and as like as not they will be torrentially flooded with Likes and so can walk around with a spring in their step, whereas 30 years ago isolated and afraid they might well have been on Valium or Librium for their nerves  and afraid to step outside the house.

One wholly admirable exception to this celebration of the ordinary is the regular fb posting, usually by angry women of all ages and generations, of polemical or satirical matter aimed at the predictable beyond parody targets and necessarily structured as a striking photo plus cogent bullet points. The targets range from the buffoonish (e.g. UK politician Boris Johnson) to the virtuoso odious in the form of Harvey Weinstein or his long lost cousin Donald Trump. Oddly and unlike Twitter very few of these posts give any links to a longer and more rounded elaboration of the polemic, and I still have no idea why that is.

One thing Ione wisely advised me about early on was never to write too much on fb. As she put it concisely, if with any post you write more than 3 sentences, people simply won’t read it, whether or not it is accompanied by a haunting photo. For a writer like me who pens a blog like this which par excellence believes in discursive prose trying to expound at length my honest and precise musings about people, places, ideas emotions, politics, film, books, TV, the spiritual life, stage ventriloquists (yes, there is an archive post about that) to be obliged to write no more than 3 sentences is a severe and at times surreal discipline. Meanwhile for reasons I don’t understand, even though Ione has explained it several times, I actually have two fb pages, one John Murray Author and one just John Murray. The latter is where I get into gear and tend to put a photo series with brief accompanying text every day, successively me plus a Kythnos character, later Hideaway Greek Islands (including tiny places you’ve never heard of like Arki in the Dodecanese or Othoni in the Dhiapondia isles) and currently Kythnos characters conspicuously minus me. The first and the last are well liked by a variety of Kythnos Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians. Alas the Hideaway Greek islands which I think more interesting than anything else, get only specialist interest, mostly from my British friends. I think the truth is that ordinary Greeks despite their fetish for eesikhia = ineffable rustic serenity peculiar to Greek islands, aren’t especially fascinated by somewhere with a population of 40 and only 2 tavernas cum shops with a very limited supply of goods and foodstuffs, and dammit on top of all that no bloody wifi = no bloody Facebook.

Finally to explain the genially scatological title of the present post. Ione as I recall went on fb in 2009 when she was in her last year as a politics student at Leeds University. I knew very little about Facebook then and true to form took the jovial paternal piss and immediately dubbed it Arsebook, something which my daughter found most hilarious.  Ever since she regularly calls it that herself, and apropos her own tolerant ridicule of the universal monolith that is fb, has often stated that she wastes too much time on it. Meanwhile as I do not have wifi in my house but only in the Kythnos café where I work each day from 8.00 to 16.00, up until recently I was spared 24/7 addiction to Facebook (and while we are at it to Gmail). Then my loving daughter, always alert and alive to my deficiencies, bought me a smartphone and brought it with her when she came here with her partner and 2 friends last month. It is a smartphone that has roaming data, meaning I can now if I wish inspect fb and my emails at my hysterical, indeed disbelieving leisure, at 1.20 and 3.25am. The result is I am like everyone else now, checking my phone like a lunatic, as if in search of the Elixir of Life whereas really all I want to know is if I have any more Likes. As for the sarcastic inversion of smartphone to fart’s moan, Ione found this equally hilarious. We both after discussion decided that a human fart could sometimes sound like a plaintive sort of moan, especially if it were that of a polite and embarrassed young woman.

MAX AND PENNY, NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL

The next post will be on or before Wednesday, 10th September

MAX AND PENNY, NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL

Neighbours can be wonderful, and of course can also be a nightmare, as evidenced from those lurid Channel 4 TV documentaries, or from that other frequently lurid phenomenon, interestingly and debatably designated as Real Life. If you are older than 30 and have never had trouble with neighbours, in the form of regular small irritations, all the way to the verge of a nervous breakdown, you are a lucky individual and a rara avis. Much of it can boil down to simple and obdurate geometry, and one predictable consequence of living in an overpriced and possibly seedy city bedsit with other cramped bedsits along 4 axes (above, below, to the left and to the right) is that you stand to get 4 music systems at full volume making you wish you were constitutionally deaf rather than being driven in that direction slowly but surely by your neighbours. One such gent back in 1982 in a grubby part of East Oxford, a single and greasily amiable man of about 30, who did not work but lived on benefits and slept and smoked you know what much of the time, fancied himself as an electric guitarist with a wonderfully powerful amplifier to match. The presenting problem was that he only knew one tune, a standard of the time called Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits, and not to delude you that there are worse things than listening to S of S, I need to emphasise he only knew the first 2 chords, which he played over and over between 2pm when he crawled out of bed and up to the symmetrical if hallucinatory 2am.

We were on the 2nd floor of a large but shabby house on the Iffley Road, so that when a one bedroom basement flat became vacant down below, we immediately took it and assumed that with only one lot of neighbours, namely the couple dwelling above us in the body of the house itself, it would all become a piece of cake, and Annie would be able to concentrate on her social work essays  and I would be able to write my fiction. We were indeed quite fond of that couple Penny and Max, before we went subterranean below their backsides so to speak, and they were an unusual pair by any standards. Penny was young, attractive and fine featured, and could be no more than 22, whereas Max was a huge hulking man well over six foot tall, who looked like a forbidding all-in wrestler, probably raised in backstreet and inevitably criminal Dublin. He was 37 which meant a fair age gap, and as he was at least 18 inches taller than her, it looked as they walked down the street as if Max had his arm round his teenage daughter. He must, this frowning, sullen wrestler, have weighed at least 17 stones, so Annie and I occasionally fantasised what it must be like in their erotic throes, which odd to say we never heard even once.

In fact, Max was a fine artist, a painter, and had once been a considerable metropolitan celebrity, back around 1970 when he was 25 and at the height of his powers. He was also Grade A posh with a voice like a shrill public school master, so suffice to say he looked like the outsize cousin of Jackie Pallo (google him if you are under 60) but talked like a squeaky vicar who ministered gladly to venerable aristocrats and those alone. Max had gradually descended into total obscurity and the rougher end of the Iffley Road, partly because the booze had taken over as his talent had stagnated, though as even epic quantities of booze have never stopped a real and enduring talent from manifesting itself (qv Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Malcolm Lowry) the likeliest problem was lack of artistic stamina aka plugging on regardless. Significantly, when you saw him clutching his midget girlfriend as they walked down the street to the pub, Max looked nervous and uneasy and his first hellos to us were decidedly shy and tongue tied. The other weird thing about Max which might have been an indication of profound emotional regression, was that he used baby talk when referring to intimate parts of the body, which given that he was at one time an avant-garde painter seemed a strange quirk. For example, he referred with frequent moist relish to the human backside, both his own and Penny’s, as the ‘botty’, which coming from someone built like a ferocious brick shithouse and at least 6 foot 2 in his socks, was altogether bizarre…

The crisis came when we had been in the basement flat about 3 months and Max and Penny’s TV viewing habits had become ever more unbearable. Max was unemployed and Penny had a part time secretarial job, but outside of work neither she nor he read much, nor did anything as far as we could see, other than go to the pub and watch TV. Their TV was a very large rented one and it was sited directly above our head, and they had it on at stone deaf volume early evening which was more or less tolerable as long as we below were listening to records or watching out own 12 inch black and white portable TV. The problem was they sat there drinking wine all night as they goggled at the box, and come midnight and just as we were going to bed, the pair of them would regularly go unconscious with the TV blaring vauntingly and for its own benefit, though certainly not for ours.

I stood this for about a month until I could stand it no longer. What I should have done was spoken about it jokingly and matter of fact to Max during the day, although even if I had I doubt he would have changed his wine quotient or alternatively conscientiously remembered to flick off the telly as he felt he was nodding off (perhaps with a scrawled memo Bloody Well Turn This Wanker Off taped above the screen). Instead I dallied with my irritation, until it turned to anger and then to rage, and no one over the age of six should allow themselves to be governed by incendiary rage. What happened then was that at one in the morning and with Annie having to be up at 5am to go for social work practice in distant Wilts, the TV was cascading brutally and brainlessly above our ears, and I suddenly felt the anger of the effortfully just man who always considers others when it comes to importunate noise, while taking note that for about 70% of the human race it never even enters their  little heads (their charming logic goes, I love this splendid racket therefore everyone else must!). I shot out of bed, and with Annie dozily protesting, I opened the door of our flat and raced up to Max and Penny’s bedsit window, where I saw through a gap in the curtains they were fast asleep and drunk. I battered a vicious and terrible rat a tat tat on their window, just to let them know what it was like for us to be languishing underneath their drunken selfish arses. What I should have done of course, was to have bawled, turn that fucking telly down! but I didn’t even do that, I just smote an apocalyptic thunder on their windows and then ran back to the flat below, and locked the door behind me. My tactical silence meant that in theory he might never have guessed it was me, but a mere five seconds passed before I heard horrible heavy steps racing down and then another ferocious tattoo and the rage of Max the former artist celebrity outside out door.

“Open the door, you absolute fucker! Come on! Open fucking up!”

Bog-eyed Annie was out of bed by now, and apprised of this small hours drama, she implored, “No, don’t you dare! He will lose control and he’ll hurt you if you let him in. He’s probably piss drunk, and he’s about three times your size…”

Unfortunately Max overheard that sound, impartial wisdom, and it evidently increased his ire. He thundered again, another hideous rallentando on the door, and ranted:

“If you’re brave enough, you bastard, to batter on my window, and then to scurry off, you can be brave enough to open up this fucking door! Come on! Open fucking up!”

I was shitting myself at this quaint if nightmarish doppelganger of PC49, as I snorted, “You keep us awake every fucking night with your fucking telly! Annie has to be up at five a clock, in four hours, to go to Swindon to do some social work, and she can’t possibly sleep with that thing above blaring away night and day. Don’t you give a damn at all about someone who has a really important job to do?”

Max of course had no job himself, and was no longer able to be an artist, so was wholly unmoved as he repeated his sacred formula. That if I his downstairs neighbour was brave enough to batter on his bedsit window, ergo I was brave enough to confront my due Nemesis.

And so it went for another half dozen exchanges, before he disappeared, and we heard no more for the rest of the night, as we both lay awake feeling sick and in a state of shock. Annie made it bleary-eyed to Swindon on the early train, and for the next 6 months, and until we finally left Oxford, their TV never rose above a tolerable level in the small hours. But every time we saw Max and Penny in the street, all four of us averted our eyes, and it got to the stage that going in and out of the basement flat felt like a minor ordeal, not least because our assailants, the Monster and the Midget, were literally above our heads and one of them was mythologically enormous, a giant and at times a bad one, and our nerves began to twitch and ache to a painful rhythm, in the obsessive and remorseless they always do in these ridiculous circumstances.