THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

The next post will be on or before Thursday 3rd January

THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

There is a riotous vignette in Mike Leigh’s 1983 TV film Meantime where Mark Pollock, a young unemployed Londoner, living in an ugly high-rise East End flat, is signing on at the dole office, and when the harassed woman fronting the desk, asks him if he has done any work recently, he immediately breaks into ranting sarcastic fantasies about baroque and impossible jobs. The dowdy DHSS woman (as they were then called) patiently asks him for her pen back, once he has signed on (interesting postposition that eh, why ‘on’?) whereupon Mark aka Phil Daniels (born 1958) counters her ‘my pen’ with ‘OUR pen!’ just to show her she is a public servant paid for in theory by such as him. The film is set in 1983, meaning 4 years after Margaret Thatcher had been in power, and had informed the world there was no such thing as ‘society’. Other indicators of the time are that these days if you gave any lip in the dole office you would have your money stopped forthwith. Daniels, veteran of the excellent 1979 mods and rockers movie Quadrophenia and sad to say the dolorous and dreary TV series EastEnders, plays the part with great skill, sullenly rhetorical, permanently enraged at his also workless Dad, Frank (gruff and sour Jeffrey Robert on top form) and greeting all statements by everyone with dextrous ironic inversions. The one love in his life is his younger brother Colin who has learning difficulties, though the love is buried in his repetitive taunts of ‘Muppet’ and ‘Kermit’. Colin, permanently clad in a shapeless and depressing anorak, is played by Tim Roth (born 1961) and this is only his second TV appearance.  Everyone acts astoundingly in this film but perhaps Roth is the truly shining star, for he sniffs and squints and shuffles and freezes and looks vacant, and stays mute when asked for information, till you almost sympathise with his angry and pitiless Mum, Mavis (Pam Ferris, born 1948 and Darling Buds of May TV star) when she resorts to bawling at and even clouting him.

The film unfolds qua typical early Leigh as a set of uneasy set pieces, and there is much for the viewer to squirm about and reflect on when it comes to acknowledging that some folks’ lives are an unmitigated hell and especially if you combine poverty with the extreme dependence of a family member. All three males are unemployed, Mavis being the only Pollock with a job, which perhaps explains her foul temper and permanent resentment at everyone around her. She and Frank are ceaselessly bawling at each other to shut up, and Mark goes ballistic at his Dad when taunted with his unemployment. When Mark points out their common condition, Frank asserts he has done his stint already thank you very much, whereas his idle son hasn’t even got started in the honourable world of honest graft (Frank also opines obligatory conscription is a good thing). The dramatic foil to the hopeless Pollock family is Mavis’s sister Barbara, married to respectable office manager John and living childless in suburban splendour in Chigwell. Barbara is played with a touching finesse by Marion Bailey (born 1951) a Leigh regular who also portrayed the widowed landlady and lover of the artist in Mr Turner (2014). Barbara has been to college and has trained in office studies, and is proud of the fact, but her self-esteem isn’t helped by the fact she is stuck at home in semi-detached boredom and that John (Alfred Molina born 1957) is studiously polite but not remotely passionate, indeed far more like a work colleague than a loving husband. Towards the end of the film she acknowledges as much by getting very drunk, and for the first time in their marriage uttering the unsayable words fuck off to her sanguine and antiseptic husband, who for the first time in his life has nil reply to offer.

Tension between the posh couple and the Pollocks is heightened when Barbara breezes round to ask nephew Colin to come and help her decorate the desirable semi. Frank and Mavis are baffled at first and not pleased to hear the wages offered are a scant £1.20 an hour, plus travel expenses between the East End and Chigwell. Barbara insists it is fair and that she will also give him excellent meals and Colin may choose the menu (burgers, please, Aunty Barbara!) whereupon Mavis gracelessly decides she will take half of every £1.20.This comedy of strained manners is heightened by the fact a council repairs official (Leigh veteran Peter Wight, born 1950) is also present, for the Pollocks’ high rise kitchen window is downright dangerous and Frank is worried it might land on someone’s head and kill them. Like all Leigh’s officials, social workers etc (qv the 2 child welfare idiots in the 1982 Home Sweet Home) he makes entertaining caricature of these token liberals with their God-awful diction

“Money, yeh, money, right? Money yeh  is power, right?” burbles silken Wight.

Barbara instantly perks up at that, and preening in the presence of another educated person, tells him straight that everyone needs money. But then she swiftly departs in case Mark should return home, for Mark would surely take angry exception to someone exploiting his defenceless brother for a wage rate appropriate to 1975.

In fact, Mark goes all out to subvert Colin’s first ever paid job. Colin is supposed to make his way to Chigwell via a succession of tubes, and predictably gets hopelessly lost. Mark turns up well before him and brushes off Barbara’s indignation at the surprise visit, with taunting insinuations about her childlessness and the obvious lovelessness of her marriage. He mockingly addresses her as Aunty Barbara, then insolently asks her what she will make him for lunch, though she bats him off with spirit and orders him into the car to go and find Colin. They cannot spot him anywhere, but when they return to Chigwell he is there in the garden, irritatingly expressionless, unable to explain how he went astray, but possibly unsettled by the presence of his brother. Barbara tries to cajole him into starting the decorating but he stays motionless and mute, and eventually accuses Mark of trying to steal his job. He then stalks off leaving Barbara to do her own decorating and makes his way with a far surer sense of navigation, to what we have earlier seen as his nascent love interest. The girl in question is Hayley who is largely speechless and inarticulate like Colin, but is so by choice rather than genetics or family influence. Played by Tilly Vosburgh (born 1960) who featured in Leigh’s 2004 abortion movie Vera Drake, she takes pity on Colin as he tries to use the launderette when deputised to do the family wash by Mavis, and for obscure reasons, even stony Mark flatters Colin that Hayley fancies him. But Hayley’s real passion is for a vagabond skinhead in a woolly hat and Doc Martens called Coxy, an acquaintance of Mark’s, who also likes to meet a question with a second unnerving question, rather than give a straight answer. Coxy is only Gary Oldman’s second TV appearance, and it is indicative of his remarkable versatility that we have also seen him as a blustering inimitable Winston Churchill in the powerful and moving WW2 film Darkest Hour (2017). Oldman (born 1958) plays a jesting antisocial rebel who whiles away his time rolling around in empty barrels on barren deserted streets, or alternatively tolerating Colin in Hayley’s flat (he’s my mate!) but then shutting him in her wardrobe with his Doc Martens as a wedge (Hayley laughs unkindly at Colin’s imprisonment, take note). But Coxy also has a threatening and vicious side, and at one stage starts clambering all over her furniture and offers to do unspecified violence to Hayley, before retracting it and making out it was just a joke. The depiction of terrifying male violence is a sustained thread in Leigh’s work and is prominently showcased in Naked (1993) about Johnny/ David Thewlis the feverishly articulate, damaged and very damaging Mancunian loner at large in night time London, as well as via Eddie Marsan’s ranting driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky, and even the artist Turner in his regular and loveless borderline rape of his infatuated house servant  

Having abandoned his job, Colin turns up hopefully at Hayley’s flat, but she refuses entry despite his pleading. Cue then his going home to disclose he did no decorating for Aunty Barbara, and his refusal to explain how and why to incensed Mavis, who true to form tries to clout it out of him. An incendiary row ensues, where Frank accuses Mark of fraternal jealousy and sabotaging his brother’s honest work, then Mavis pursuing Colin into his bedroom where for the first time ever he stuns and even silences her, by shouting at her to get out of the room that belongs to him! Later, by way of understated epilogue, Mark steals into Colin’s room and as he is sleeping, he lifts up the anorak hood to behold a completely shaved head, which of course his brother does not wish Frank and Mavis to learn about too soon. Colin has evidently decided he needed to look like crazy Coxy to win beautiful Hayley, and had taken appropriate and even you might say craftily intelligent action.

“How much did it cost for the haircut…?”

“What? Oh £1.20…”

The only mystery is where the new East End skinhead got the necessary money from, for of course he did not strike a bat at Aunty Barbara’s…

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DAFT NOTIONS

The next post will be on or before Saturday 29th December. Happy Christmas and a perfect 2019 to all

DAFT NOTIONS

I love idiotic logic, don’t you, and the more idiotic the better, though to be sure I need to admit right away, so that you know this is not penned de haut en bas, that I am as capable of idiocy as anyone else. And I heard a real corker of a nonsense recently, when I was invited i.e. forced to sit down with Tasos and Panos who were having a spontaneous party sat on the chairs outside one of the port supermarkets, and decided that I should enjoy it with them. They are both about my age, one a fisherman and the other an electrician, and they were knocking back Tasos’s estimably incendiary homemade tsipuro/ grape brandy alongside mezzes of cheese and olives, in effect constituting an unlicensed kafeneion or bar, and using the defunct-in-December supermarket fridge as a table. At one stage our meandering discussion got onto drink generally, and Tasos declared as if it were a splendid paradoxical marvel that whisky, the Scottish stuff, was made out of onions

I got a laughing fit at that, which didn’t please the grizzly fisherman one iota, as Tasos takes his opinions very seriously.

He said belligerently, “It is malaka/you wanker! Whisky’s made from bloody onions…!”

I immediately assumed a charmingly compliant mien, and told him I’d thought it was made from rye or barley or wheat or other agricultural grain.

“Like fuck it is! It’s all those fucking onions they have up there in Skotia/ Scotland…!”

Tatiana the Rumanian shop assistant happened to be sat nearby and without consultation she googled the matter on her smartphone and confirmed what I had said…

Tasos growled, “Gamoto/ fuck it! Those pissy bloody phones will tell you any old useless shit…”

Half a century before all that, in 1969, I embarked on my degree at University College, Oxford, and wholesale ignoramus provincial that I was, began by studying Physiology and Psychology (PPP). This is where I bring my mother Mollie Murray nee Renney (1915-1990) into the picture, one of the most charismatic, dogmatic, lovable, infuriating, tolerant, tunnel-visioned individuals I have ever met in all my life.  When I was back at home in West Cumbria over the Christmas break, she began leafing through my General Physiology textbook, full of drawings and photographs of lungs and hearts and gall bladders and spleens and so on, then stoutly remarked:

“You’ll be thinking and fretting about your insides all the time, studying this! It gives me the shudders, all these creepy blinking photographs!”

In the event, she was exactly and diametrically wrong. Not only did that textbook not make me think about my insides, it made me instead think about the polar opposite, meaning the enchanting physical and sensuous world out there in all its possible profusion of genera and anomalies.  After 2 terms of looking at the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, of studying rheology, the science of liquid flow as in blood vessels, and the baroreceptors which monitor our blood pressure, I decided I was a damned sight more interested in the exotic and extravagant Classical Orient in the form of Ancient India, so that I took a deep breath and switched to Sanskrit and Old Iranian, meaning I had to attend at the small and homely Oriental Studies Department with its odorously varnished library in lovely Pusey Lane of blessed memory. Thereafter had I really hankered after staring at my insides, I could have opted to study Yogic Physiology replete with its chakra system, which seems to correspond to our plexuses as in the solar and the sacrococcygeal plexus. But no, I didn’t, or at least not until 5 years later, when I worked on approximately 3500 manuscripts of the Ayurvedic system of Classical Indian Medicine at the Wellcome Institute, London. There one learns that lashuna, garlic, is good for the eyesight which must surely be a supremely daft notion, otherwise all Greeks, Spaniards, French etc would never have myopia nor astigmatism and their opticians would be workless and found rooting in dustbins. On the other hand, in the Bhutavidya or Psychiatry division of the Ayurveda as expounded by the great authorities Sushruta and Charaka, they recommend that depression in males be treated by surrounding them with a large number of naked women, which strikes me 40 odd years on as being the sanest nostrum I have ever heard, and surely much better than Prozac and its variants.

Going even further back to 1962, when I began at my West Cumbrian Grammar School, there was a division in morning worship where C of E like me attended prayers and announcements in the massive School Assembly Hall, whereas the minority Roman Catholics had their own RC version in the dining room. One day I looked carefully and wonderingly at the latter, all gathered together in the refectory, and decided I needed to understand what, RC liturgy aside, the difference was. Suddenly as if struck by understated lightning, I was inspired to think that they definitely had something ineffable and unusual and highly original in the subtle disposition of their eyes…meaning mad as it sounds, some kind of phrenological imprint peculiar to Catholics, and not peculiar to the less distinguished Anglicans whether High Church or, as in my pit village case, the Low Church bastard sibling.

I continued for a good decade thinking I could spot an RC person a mile off, by, infinitely discreetly you understand, closely studying their eyes, and the relationship of those eyes to the overall inscrutable visage. For a whole 10 years I thought I could spot a Catholic from any distance, thanks to my own quasi-mystical means of nuanced calibration. Then would you believe, a woman called Myrna who I had been dating for a year, a whole 12 months, and of whom I had nil inkling as to her practised faith, whether current or lapsed, quietly disclosed to me that she was a Roman Catholic and had been so all her life…

I stared at her in amazement.

“But you don’t have the eyes,” I said to her, with a pleading sort of eloquence. “You don’t have the eyes of a Roman Catholic, Myrna.”

And with that, and God knows why, everything between us seemed to go steadily downhill.

PORKY AND JEFF

The next post will be on or before Sunday 23rd December

PORKY AND JEFF

What I Did and Read in 2002

2002 was the year we explored some of the remoter Dodecanese, meaning those islands near Turkey, of which Kos and Rhodes are the best-known and most visited. In May of that year I was 51, Annie 46 and Ione almost 13, and in our daughter’s case a profound interest in feverishly attractive heartthrobs was showing its impulsive head. In tiny Lipsi which we reached via Kos, she immediately fell in love with a handsome boy of about 20 who had an arresting Mohican haircut, as you might predict the only one of its kind in that obscure community. The good news was that Mohican’s best mate, his ballast and his brake you might say, was his unalluring cousin, a native of the island, whereas the Fenimore Cooper gent hailed from groovy central Athens, hence the striking tonsure.Privately Annie and I referred to the cousin aged perhaps 16 as Porky Scratchings, as he was very obese and rather dozy looking, though it certainly gladdened our hearts that he made a homely foil towards the Chingachgook lookalike. Nevertheless, it made for strain and friction as on the day we took a boat excursion around Lipsi satellites like Arki (population 40) and Marathi (6 souls in summer only) Ione said she wanted to stay on Lipsi and dally with her hero. No one in their right mind would have allowed a 12-year-old to stay on their own all day in those circumstances, but it meant our offspring sulked for a virtuoso 8 hours and even my jovial kay-oh-kay gags which had Annie at any rate hooting, fell on deaf ears. In case you need explication, back in the late 50s and early 60s, there was an epic TV series of Lassie, the American doughty dog adventure, where the 11-year-old owner who came of a Midwest farming family, was called Jeff, blond and gentle and exemplary…and his best pal was a sausagey-looking lad called Porky. Porky and Jeff had a secret greeting call, which they bawled redundantly at each other from any visible distance and which was KAY-OH-KAY!

We had a day trip to legendary Patmos, famously where Saint John had his apocalyptic vision, as described in Revelation, the last book of the Bible.We visited the shrine where supposedly the vision had happened, and altogether bizarrely, just as we left it, we were greeted by the contemporary variant of the apocalyptic, as 2 local kids both about 15, bowling downhill from the Hora on a scooter, shouted gleeful and universally intelligible obscenities at no one in particular. By contrast, when we stopped off at minuscule Marathi on the boat excursion, the gentlemanly if businesslike owner of one of the 2 tavernas, both of which offered accommodation, urged us to come and stay there a fortnight and truly get away from it all. Some prospect, Annie and I instantly decided, akin to deep therapy with no way out as it were.  Marathi is basically a glorified sandspit, or a large cricket pitch, with a church, an exquisite beach, the 2 tavernas, and absolutely nothing else. Can you imagine 2 weeks on Marathi with a hormonal teenager which would be not only minus Chingachgook, but minus everything else?As I say like deep therapy and instead of getting away from it all, you would be getting into an unusual and original cul de sac which though not apocalyptic would certainly not be any Shangri La…

What I Read in 2002 (from my Reading Diary for that year)

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (1926-2016. Worldwide bestseller about Deep South racism published in 1960 and which every UK schoolkid reads as a set book. The Alabama writer refused to give it any more publicity via interviews after 1964)

In The Land of Dreamy Dreams by Ellen Gilchrist (born 1935. Eminent Mississippi short story writer who won the National Book Award)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1924-1984. Best known 1958 novel of the celebrated author which was turned into a film in 1961 with Audrey Hepburn playing Holly Golightly)

Changes of Address by Lee Langley (born 1932. This 1987 autobiographical novel by the Indian writer born Calcutta, is very enjoyable and made her name. She lives in London)

An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma (born 1971. Indian-US writer, Harvard-educated, who is a professor of Creative Writing. This is his best known 2000 novel)

Funeral Party by Ludmilla Ulitskaya (born 1943. The 1997 novel of the Russian-Jewish writer who divides her time between Moscow and Israel and has written about the Holocaust)

Fort Comme la Mort/ Strong as Death by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893. The 1889 novel of the great short story writer and a fine novelist as seen here, and  in Bel Ami, who died of chronic syphilis aged 43)

Sleep It Off Lady by Jean Rhys (1890-1979. Legendary novelist and story writer patronised by editor and novelist Ford Madox Ford, with whom she had an affair. She disappeared from view for many years and lived in Bude, Cornwall, which she called Bude The Obscure. Rediscovered, she eventually produced this her late 1976 story collection)

Our Weddings by Dorit Rabinyan (born 1972. The 1999 novel of an Israeli writer of Iranian Jewish extraction)

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (born 1943. Eminent Australian writer who has won the Booker Prize twice, including with this his 1988 novel)

Fables by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889. The great Russian satirist is best known for his 1880 novel The Golovlov Family. A liberal rather than a radical, he worked for the Czarist government, but got into trouble over his journalism)

The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West (1892-1983. A 1935 story collection by the celebrated writer and journalist who was lover of HG Wells for many years)

Lovely Green Eyes by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Superb if harrowing Czech Jewish writer who went through Auschwitz as a teenager and much of whose fiction treats of the Holocaust)

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch (1911-1991. Doyen of Swiss authors best known for his 1957 Homo Faber. This is his 1954 novel)

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1897-1962. The 1938 story collection by the great Mississippi writer best known for The Sound and the Fury)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (born 1975. Bestselling very enjoyable debut novel published 2000 by London writer whose mother was Jamaican and her father English)

What Maisie Knew by Henry James (1843-1916. The 1897 novel of the eminent author which has been filmed and adapted numerous times. I have always struggled with Henry James sad to say)

Complete Stories of Isaac Babel (1894-1940. Acclaimed as ‘the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry’ he was arrested by the NKVD and shot as a Trotskyist spy)

The Last of Summer by Kate O’ Brien (1897-1974. Hugely gifted Irish novelist thankfully rescued from oblivion like many other excellent women writers by Virago Press. An early feminist, she had 2 novels banned in Ireland and one banned in Spain. Her 1946 historical novel set in Spain, That Lady, was filmed in 1955 and starred Olivia de Haviland and Paul Scofield)

The Widow by Francis King (1923-2011. Fine novelist who came out as a gay in the 70s and worked for the British Council for many years. This is his 1957 novel)

The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009. The 1964 novel of one of Sudan’s best-known authors)

The Only Problem by Muriel Spark (the 1984 work of the very gifted and blackly comic novelist)

Small World by Martin Suter (born 1948. The 1997 work of a leading Swiss novelist and columnist)

The Farm Theotime by Henri Bosco (1888-1976. A remarkably original and disturbing rustic tale by the Avignon writer who also wrote children’s books.Published in 1945 it won the Prix Renaudot. I wrote a post about it last year in these pages)

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865. Debut 1848 novel by the great writer who unusually concerned herself with those living in poverty. Her novels are of obvious interest to English social historians of the period)

Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949. Best known for her novels about mediaeval Norway, including Kristin Lavransdatter, I much prefer her modern works such as this excellent 1932 study of a difficult marriage. She won the Nobel Prize in 1928)

A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden (1925-2012. The 1967 work of a prolific and very enjoyable English novelist. Most of her work is available inVirago)

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000. This fine story collection was published the year she died. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore which was set on a London houseboat)

Fury by Salman Rushdie (born 1947. My favourite novel of his is Shame which is set in Pakistan, but having read it several times and also taught Midnight’s Children, I like the book that made his name less and less. This is his 2001 novel)

Monsieur Carre Benoit in The Country by Henri Bosco (a very strange but impressive 1937 novel by the Avignon writer)

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910. This is his 1886 novella)

An Only Child by Frank O’Connor (1903-1966. A superb and moving volume of memoirs, published 1961, by the great Irish short story writer)

Culotte the Donkey by Henri Bosco (his best known 1937 children’s book, that took nearly 40 years to appear in English)

Henri Bosco – Poet and Novelist by RT Sussex (the only full-length study of the Avignon writer available in English, written by a New Zealand academic)

The Adventures of Pascalet by Henri Bosco (this translation of his children’s book appeared with OUP in the year of his death, 1976)

Hindoo Holiday by JR Ackerley (1896-1967. Openly gay UK writer whose memoir of his father is his best-known book, alongside that of his beloved dog, in the 1956 My Dog Tulip. This 1952 work describes his brief term as secretary to an Indian maharaja)

Knulp by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962. I like the great man’s Steppenwolf and the short 1910 novel Gertrud very much and I wrote about the latter in these pages. Sad to say I found this 1915 work unreadable and gave up half way through)

The Boy and The River by Henri Bosco (his 1945 children’s novel)

The Lost Girl by DH Lawrence (1885-1930. Not well known but this excellent 1920 novel won the James Tait Black Prize the same year. It is about a bankrupt draper’s daughter Alvina Houghton who falls for an Italian actor and has a sexual awakening)

Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941. The final 1941 work of the great writer)

Twenty Years A Growing by Maurice O’ Sullivan (1904-1950. Touching memoir by one of the Blasket Island, Co Kerry writers. The island was abandoned in 1953, and Tomas O’ Crohan and Peig Sayers also wrote their Blasket memoirs, all available with OUP. EM Forster praised this 1933 work, but condescendingly characterised it as a description of ‘Neolithic’ culture)

The Virgin and the Gypsy by DH Lawrence (the 1926 novella was turned into a 1970 movie starring Maurice Denham and Fay Compton, and with Franco Nero as the gypsy)

The Ladybird by DH Lawrence (his 1922 novella first drafted as a story in 1915)

Among the Russians by Colin Thubron (born 1939. Eminent UK travel writer and this is his account of driving round the Soviet Union in 1981)

Downhill All The Way by Leonard Woolf (1880-1969. Husband of Virginia, this is his 1967 memoir of the years 1919-1939, meaning covering up to 2 years before her death)

The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass (1927-2015. The best known 1959 novel of one of Germany’s most important writers, turned into a movie in 1979 starring David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath)

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990. Celebrated English novelist who was lover of Cecil Day Lewis and sister of the London Magazine editor John Lehmann. Many of her novels were filmed for TV, and this 1953 work had a 2002 adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter)

The White Horses of Vienna by Kay Boyle (1902-1992. Wonderful politically active and prolific US writer who deserves more attention than she gets. She was persecuted in the McCarthyism years and lost her journalist job before being rehabilitated in 1957. This is her 1937 story collection, and my favourite of her works is the 1944 novel Avalanche)

The Orange Tree by Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012. One of Mexico’s most famous writers, much admired by Salman Rushdie and others, though I personally am not a great fan. This is his 1994 short story collection)

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Banes (born 1946. Barnes won the Booker in 2011 and was shortlisted with this 1984 novel, but heretical as it sounds, I have never been an admirer. His erudition and observation are always jauntily jovial rather than profound – see his 1989 History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters – and most of his narrators/protagonists sound identical to his jauntily jovial TV criticism published in the New Statesman circa 40 years ago. Only the Brits would be so impressed by such an artless conflation)

The Traveller’s Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011. Legendary buccaneer travel writer and novelist who fought in the Cretan Resistance in WW2, and settled in Kardamili, Greece. This is his 1950 Caribbean travelogue)

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891. One of America’s greatest writers, but this 1851 whaling saga is not exactly easy going for a vegetarian like myself)

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (1914-1997. Volume 2 of his autobiographical trilogy, the earlier Cider With Rosie being his best-known work. He was a fine and vivid writer who also fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He came from Slad in Gloucs)

A Rose For Winter by Laurie Lee (his 1955 work about travelling in Andalusia)

The Murderer by Roy Heath (1926-2008. Guyanese writer settled in UK best known for his Georgetown Trilogy, 1979-1981. This 1978 novel won the Guardian Fiction Prize)

The Insurrection by Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984. Shamefully neglected Irish genius whose works are mostly out of print these days. This is his 1950 novel about the Easter Uprising of 1916)

A Violent Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975. Massively talented film maker and novelist who was appallingly tortured and murdered aged 53, either by the Mafia or by an unknown extortionist. This 1959 autobiographical novel about a bunch of poverty-stricken youths in Rome was turned into a fine 1961 film)

Island Going by Robert Atkinson (wonderful account of 2 bird lovers travelling the remoter Hebrides, including St Kilda and N Rona in 1935, in search of Leach’s fork-tailed petrel)

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1904-1991. His famous 1940 novel about a ‘whisky’ priest in Tabasco State, Mexico)

Noble Descents by Gerald Hanley (1916-1992. The 1982 novel by the soldier author who wrote powerful anti-colonial novels such as the excellent The Consul at Sunset. He was arguably overshadowed by his better-known  brother James Hanley, author of the shocking and prosecuted Boy)

The Fifth Estate by Ferdinando Camon (born 1935. Italian writer best known for this trilogy of memoirs published 1970-1978)

Conversation at Curlow Creek by David Malouf (born 1934. The 1996 novel of the eminent Australian writer, which is about the relationship between a criminal and his executioner circa 1827 in New South Wales)

The Go Between by LP Hartley (1895-1972. Best known work of an author who also wrote the fine The Hireling about a charismatic chauffeur and his employer, both novels being filmed. The movie of this one was made in 1971, and starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. He also wrote the acclaimed Eustace and Hilda, but I have tried some of his other lesser known works, and sad to say they are not very impressive)

Isles of the West by Ian Mitchell (all about a 3 month voyage in 1999 around the Hebrides)

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (1840-1902. One of his massive series of novels which tries to prove the importance of heredity on behaviour, and is called the Rougon-Macquart cycle. It was published in 1871)

Fromont Junior and Risler Senior by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897. Best known for Letters from my Windmill and Tartarin of Tarascon, this 1874 novel with its ungainly title was remarkably a worldwide- bestseller. My favourites of his works are Numa Roumestan and Sappho, both of which are uninhibitedly and enjoyably sensual. Tragically Daudet like Maupassant suffered from chronic syphilis)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1875-1955. His 1912 novel which was turned into the poignant 1971 Visconti movie starring Dirk Bogarde. Mann won the Nobel Prize in 1929)

Tonio Kruger by Thomas Mann (1903)

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann (1951)

Mario The Magician by Thomas Mann (1929)

I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven (1901-1980. Debut 1967 novel by acclaimed US writer)

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (1978)

Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet (1869)

Our Lady of the Lies by Paul Bourget (1852-1935. Bourget, admired by John Cowper Powys, is not much read nowadays, as he was of both austere Catholic and monarchist persuasion, but what I have read I have enjoyed. This is his 1886 novel)

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

Sea Room by Adam Nicholson (born 1957. Fine travel writer and historian who is son of Nigel Nicolson and grandson of Vita Sackville West.This 2001 book is about the uninhabited Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides, which lucky Mr Nicholson owns)

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (1919-2013. Eminent British Zimbabwean writer famous for The Golden Notebook and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. This is her 1952 novel, and my favourite of all her works is the 1950 The Grass is Singing)

Down By The River by Edna O’ Brien (born 1930. Superb Co Clare writer who made her remarkable 1960 debut with The Country Girls. This is a powerful and harrowing 1997 novel about a young girl impregnated by her father trying in vain to get an abortion. It was based on a real and shocking case from 1992. Needless to say, back in the old days and up to the 1970s, much of O’Brien’s work was banned in Ireland)

Time and Tide by Edna O’ Brien (her 1992 novel about a downtrodden Irishwoman called Nell struggling to survive in the UK)

Wild Decembers by Edna O’ Brien (a 1999 novel set in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, which was made into a TV series by Telefis Eireann)

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (1937-2015. Important US writer much influenced by the 60s counter culture, who variously set his novels in e.g.Vietnam and Jim Crow era New Orleans. This is his 1999 novel)

Atomised by Michel Houllebecq (born 1956. Winner of the Prix Goncourt and described by some as the greatest living French writer, I find his work leeringly adolescent, amateurish and at times revolting. He was taken to court for inciting racial hatred and his knack for creating controversy certainly helps his books to sell. This is his 1998 novel)

Brendan Behan’s Island by Brendan Behan (1923-1964. Wonderful illustrated 1962 account of the boozy mega celebrity writer and militant Republican, returning  to Dublin and meeting some powerful eccentrics in the bars. Behan who died of alcoholism, once said ‘I am a drinker with a writing problem’…

Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan (the 1958 autobiographical account that made his name. He was arrested aged 16 for subversive activities with the IRA, and was incarcerated in a borstal in Suffolk. The book was much admired by Kenneth Tynan)

Confessions of an Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan (1965)

The Scarperer by Brendan Behan (his only novel, published in 1963. An enjoyable knockabout tale about amateurish subversion in Dublin where drink gets in the way)

Diary of My Times by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948. His 1938 work and which followed on from his best known 1936 book, Diary of a Country Priest, turned into a film by Bresson. Bresson also made a moving version of the 1966 Mouchette, about a neglected young peasant girl. Bernanos was a devout Catholic with monarchist leanings, but despite his links with Action Francaise he described Fascism as ‘disgustingly monstrous’)

The Crocodile’s Head by Jack Debney (fine collection of stories by an Englishman who has spent most of his life teaching in Germany. I gave it a very positive review in the Literary Review)

Usurpers by Francisco Ayala (1949 collection of 7 stories by a writer exiled to Argentina after the Spanish Civil War. It treats of various historical figures, including Spanish monarchs, all of them hungry for power, hence usurpers, who usually get their Nemesis)

Arabia by Jonathan Raban (born 1942. Eminent UK travel writer and this 1979 work has him going through the footsteps of TE Lawrence and Wilfrid Thesiger, as he journeys through the oil states and Saudi Arabia. As preparation he also learnt Arabic from a woman called Fatma)

An Affair of Honour by Richard Marius (1933-1999. Gifted Tennessee writer and academic. This was published posthumously in 2001, and is about the trial of a Tennessee man who murders a woman for unfaithfulness, hence the title)

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano (1953-2003. Vagabond Chilean novelist who died aged 50 of liver failure. This novel is in part the loosely structured deathbed rantings of an Opus Dei priest and failed poet. The NY Times described him as one of the most important South American writers of his generation)

My Brother Brendan by Dominic Behan (1928-1989. Engaging memoir of his famous brother by one of Ireland’s greatest song writers, who was both a Republican and a committed socialist)

Sowing by Leonard Woolf (memoir by Virginia’s husband covering the years 1880-1904. Published in 1960)

Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy by Nella Bielski (born in the 1930s in Ukraine, she then married a Frenchman and moved to France. She was a film actress as well as writer, and was regularly translated by her friend John Berger)

Evelina by Fanny Burney (1752-1840. Witty and satirical epistolary novel about a 17-year old’s entrance into the fashionable world, published anonymously in 1778. It was praised by Dr Johnson)

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989. Late 1988 collection of essays by the great travel writer and novelist. One essay is about making a film with Werner Herzog)

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (born 1948. His early 1981 excursion into S and M set somewhere that be might be Venice. I rate some of his books highly e.g. Atonement and Saturday, but I think e.g. A Child in Time and Enduring Love and Booker-winning Amsterdam, are all deeply spurious and deeply smug.  I also thought the 2016 Nutshell was an absolute disgrace as it is narrated by a foetus who becomes a connoisseur of the wines its mother drinks during pregnancy. Did no one ever tell brainbox Ian, who is supposedly really into science, that foetuses and alcohol don’t mix?)

The Invisible Worm by Jennifer Johnston (born 1930. Gifted Irish writer who won the Whitbread Award and whose novel The Old Jest was filmed as The Dawning with Anthony Hopkins. This is her 1992 novel)

The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston (1972)

An Old Woman’s Reflections by Peig Sayers (1873-1958. One of the Blasket Island writers, alongside Tomas O’Crohan and Maurice O’ Sullivan. She did not actually write these reflections but dictated them and was a renowned storyteller. Mesmerising reading and available with OUP)

In The Wake by Per Petterson (born 1953. Leading Norwegian writer whose breakthrough came with the 2003 Out Stealing Horses. This is his 2000 novel)

By The Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah (born 1948. Tanzanian writer who teaches in the University of Kent. His best-known book is the 1994 Paradise and this 2001 work was longlisted for the Booker)

The Longest Journey by EM Forster (1879-1970. The least known and most autobiographical of the great man’s novels was published in 1907. It is the only one of his novels never to have been adapted for film)