Snatches of two far from confidential mobile phone conversations overheard in Hackney, London in the past week.

From an attractive woman with large earrings walking at full speed, and aged about 35:

“So when she got home, she found her husband on top of another woman.”

Two days later, from a lady in her late sixties with a moon-shaped visage, pale faced and with a strong local accent:

“Well she needs to facking well talk to her facking old man, don’t she?”

It only occurs to me as I write this that they might just be both talking about the same woman. Aside from reflecting that pre mobile phones, few blameless sexagenarian women would have said fucking at the top of their voice on a busy street…I can also confirm that you would never overhear conversations like those on the Isle of Kythnos, Greece, where I lived for 6 years before recently returning to the UK. Which is to say that while adultery is as popular a non-spectator sport there, as it is anywhere else in the world (and believe me the whole island, winter population 800, knows all the juicy details, real ones and wondrously baroque fabrications, within minutes rather than days) no one there would share their potent secrets at full volume with the whole world, and for free. Meanwhile I calculated recently that I have spent some 54 out of my 68 years in my native Cumbria, approximately half in my birthplace of the industrial west (think of the Solway Firth and of coastal Maryport, and of the birthplace of the iron and steel Bessemer converter, Workington), and the other half in the beautiful and largely unsung North East Uplands (qv the remote and tenderly exquisite rural hamlets of Roadhead, Bewcastle and Penton). Ditto no one in that sprawling and massive county would broadcast the engaging tale of someone nabbed in flagrante delicto, as if they were some unrestrained BBC Radio 3 Sunday night drama pullulating at full blast for the benefit of those neighbours who have never even heard of BBC Radio 3…

This isn’t the first time I have lived in London. I was here for a year in 1974 which to my astonishment is all of 45 years ago. I lived then in West Hampstead and commuted by tube to Euston Square, and thence to the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, where I was cataloguing their collection of Ayurvedic manuscripts written in Sanskrit. These days everyone over the age of 10 knows about the Ayurveda, but then absolutely no one but myself was studying it outside of India, which if you are 23 as I was in 1974, makes you feel both headily exclusive, and let’s face it, a bit in existential quarantine. By a strange coincidence, the short cut from my flat to the tube station took you past a Zoroastrian aka Parsee fire temple, the only one in the UK, I think I’m right in saying. The Zoroastrian scriptures, including the prophet Zoroaster’s Gathas, are written in a type of Old Iranian called Avestan, and yes, my subsidiary subject at Oxford when I read Sanskrit in the early 70s, just happened to be Avestan (alongside rock cuneiform Old Persian).

In West Hampstead I shared a pleasantly old-fashioned 2 bedroom flat that cost £64 a month, about 3 times what it would have cost in Cumbria. The house of which it was a part, was owned by a very nice old Indian lady who had an elderly Nepali caretaker doing odd jobs around the house. Male Nepalis often wear plant pot shaped hats, and he wore his jaunty version day and night, even though he was a long way from his home town of Himalayan Pokhara. He owned a mangy old dog, a white bellied bitch of about 15, who waddled her way up and downstairs, and would smile at me if I greeted her, but would never approach to be patted. West Hampstead then was conspicuously ungentrified, with no suave wine bars nor pricey coffee houses, and of course not even a sniff of wifi. Nor as now were there phone shops run by exiled Kosovans, for in the 1970s Kosovo was a subdued and impoverished part of Yugoslavian Serbia, where the average income was 40% of the rest of the down at heel province. A friendly young Italian couple ran a dirt-cheap trattoria near the tube station, and their cannelloni was so excellent I never ordered anything else. It cost 35 pence, whereas it might have been 50p or even 60p in far flung Cumbria, but as I only made £1400 a year as a research assistant, I was never able to eat or drink quite as much and as grandly as I would have wished in the sometimes overwhelming metropolis.

Now in 2019 I have discovered lovely Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes, with their winding and dreaming canals, full of romantic as well as less romantic houseboats. The former are painted a heartening sky blue or homely pastel shade, the latter may be up to a mile long and with sumptuous window frames that would cost more than a terraced house in Maryport. Last week, I was warmed to the core to see the copious birdlife on the Walthamstow Reservoirs: mordant little moorhens and flotillas of gliding and plaintive ducks, but there were also flawlessly supersonic cormorants just as you get in the Kythnos port of Merihas, or up in the Outer Hebrides. The first of the reservoirs lies very low and has a brief descent from the grassland above it. Even with the high-rise flats in the background, I could have been on the bare Solway Plain, in that melancholy but handsome land of estuaries and tufted sand dunes. I was inordinately heartened to know that I was in London, and that it was both the metropolis and authentic countryside. For they have Belted Galloway cattle on the Marshes, and yesterday I saw 3 or 4 tractors manned I presume by the Nature Reserve wardens. There were signs up saying what to do if a Galloway approached you aggressively, and they urged you above all not to run. To which I would say, try doing that when they have their young calves about them, and see if you can stay rooted to the spot, to be flattened good and proper by their roaring and bellowing and decidedly lethal mothers…

I love shopping in Hackney as cooking is my passion, and you can get anything here in the way of vegetables, pulses and spices. Most of the shopkeepers are relaxed and friendly Turks, and I love listening to Turkish, even though all I know is bir, iki, uc, meaning 1, 2, 3 and cok tesekurler ederim which means, thank you very much. There is also a charity shop nearby, which boasts world cinema DVDs, including my heroes the Argentinian Ricardo Darin, and the incomparable Javier Bardem. At the same place I acquired a Virago Classic novel, The Holiday (1936) by the poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) the Ministry worker who doted on her beloved aunt, and whose life was turned into the celebrated film Stevie, starring Glenda Jackson. The foreword says Smith was primarily a poet, and that she didn’t like writing prose, and believe you me, it shows. I promise you that I love a tough stylistic challenge as much as the next, but there are a finite number of novelists whose tortuous syntax and impenetrable semantics, I would say, are far more trouble than they are worth. It is heresy to say it, but the elliptical Henry Green (1905-1973, author of Doting and Nothing) is one, and Jack B Yeats (1871-1957), better known as a brilliant artist, is another. With Yeats (brother of WB the poet) and his The Careless Flower, I have to read every sentence 5 times, and I still have no measurable clue of what he is saying, and worse still, if on the 5th reading I do glimpse what he might just be on about, the next clause is sure to make a contrary interpretation and have me reaching half insane for the Montepulciano.

Here is an extract from Chapter 1 of Stevie Smith’s The Holiday

‘I say are you going to Lopez’s party to-night

Ye-es I a-a-am

You are very flip at the parties I suppose?

Yes I am

It is not much good is it, said Caz. ‘Something human’ he said, ‘is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.’

Oh, yes, that is how it is.

But you remember, Celia, who said that, he was not human at all.

He lived in the black mountains, I said.

No need to cry about it, dear girl

In the black mountains, sang Caz, mimicking and getting rather louder’

Having typed all that with great care down to the very last hyphen, I have just read the whole thing through, but on this occasion only 3 times, before impatiently pushing it aside and calling it a day. I am therefore making a definite personal progress.

The same is true of my falling in love with London, which is certainly far quicker than I had hoped.

The next post will be on or before Thursday, September 12th

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