A week ago I was in a charity shop in North London that was staffed by a single elderly East European gentleman, and virtually all its contents were completely inaccessible. The books were stacked on shelves at head height, and went up to about 10 feet, and as no step ladders were provided, you would either need brilliant nay freakish long sight, or a good pair of binoculars, or even a telescope to read the titles. But then the place was so badly illuminated, your nifty optical instruments might not have functioned, and add to that that a huge immovable carousel with crime paperbacks was lodged in front of and only four inches from the book shelves, so there was no way of getting nearer the focus of your interest.

I am as you’ve probably guessed a second hand books and second hand DVD man, and the DVDs likewise were stacked at a remote altitude, but far flung as they were, I was able to spot the familiar covers of those blockbuster films that monotonously people every single charity shop. Stop me if you haven’t also spotted in Oxfam and Shelter and Scope, industrial quantities of the following: Taken (2008) the action thriller scripted by Luc Besson and starring Liam Neeson, an ex-secret service man whose daughter is abducted in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers; Heat (1995) another bluff one-word titled blockbuster, with De Niro, Pacino and Val Kilmer, which is all about the cop who decides to stop a legendary criminal busy planning his last pre-retirement heist. Finally, of similar historical longevity, and with a two-word title is the 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky US comedy about an awkward Idaho schoolkid and his attempts to help his friend win the class presidency. The hero Napoleon’s grandma breaks her coccyx in a quadbike accident, so although I haven’t seen it, it does sound a mite less formulaic than other transatlantic high school ‘romps’. Though to be sure, not all of the most popular charity shop films are formula thrillers or goofy comedies, which is to say that on occasion quality really can shine through, and especially if grotesque violence is part of the mix. So it is that with Javier Bardem as the bloodless psycho toting the lethal gas gun, the DVD of that fine movie the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men (2007) featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the old-fashioned principled cop, is absolutely everywhere, often 3 copies per charity shop. The same goes for the excellent Amelie (2001) a stereoscopic parable about the comic arduousness of finding real love. Starring Audrey Tautou, whose remarkable talent is as much in her ingenious facial mobility as her words, it might well have been a worldwide hit, but for once, with its idiosyncratic and stylised direction, it actually deserved to be.

I am as you know a world cinema freak, and you might say subtitles are my middle name, but sad to say in certain parts of London that conspicuously are chockablock with top notch posh girls’ grammar schools (whose pupils might notionally wish to learn what e.g. the French and the Italians think about love in all its contradictory aspects) there is not a single subtitled film in the charity shops. High Barnet for example is a prosperous middle-class area and has about a dozen charity outlets, none of which boasts even one foreign movie, not even Amelie. Yet by inscrutable perversity, in other affluent areas where they do actually contravene the stereotypical Brexit mentality, inasmuch as they boast a single foreign movie on their Oxfam or their Shelter shelves, it is nearly always the same one, a brilliant but shocking apocalyptic satire on human greed called Delicatessen directed in 1991 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It is about a leering butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, born 1946) with a busy turnover in handymen as he keeps killing them and recycling them as food. Why I ask myself do these parochial and clearly chauvinistic areas, go for of all things, a tale about a gruesomely homicidal butcher, at least as frequently as they do for the charming and elfin Amelie, someone who has a not a trace of violence in her person and indeed is often taking on bullies and monomaniacs who try to dominate others?

The next post will be on or before Friday 24th January



There is a sandwich bar here in Hackney which calls itself ‘Freshly Sandwiches’, and that must surely be run by a foreigner, possibly a Turk or a Kurd who own many of the catering and supermarket businesses in this area. The point is that adverbs like ‘freshly’ are so called, because they ‘add to’ a verb, and of course in Freshly Sandwiches there is no verb. The proprietors have obviously confused Fresh Sandwiches with Freshly Made Sandwiches (‘made’ being a verb) and have produced a delightful fusion phrase, which let’s face it has a superior sound to it, as, to call your carry out joint ‘Fresh Sandwiches’ is to be rather on the prosaic and anticlimactic side, a bit like christening your handsome little son My Boy instead of say Benny or Montague.

Not that long ago, Hackney was regarded as a deprived area, so that businesses using faulty grammar and spelling were to be expected and tolerated. Nearby Hampstead, of course, home of the glitterati and literati, is a horse of another colour, so it was bemusing last week to see a shop front, a newsagent’s, where the hallowed area was boldly spelt Hamstead, a solecism little short of cultural treason. It reminded me of my native Cumbria, where for at least 20 years a rural slaughterhouse in a small village outside Carlisle, was signposted by the County Council Highways Department as an Abbatoir, which always made me think of a cross between the saccharine pop group and the Hebrew word for father. Being a vegetarian, I found such a ludicrous misspelling inordinately insensitive and unpleasant, and I kept thinking of penning my indignation to the same Department, but after 20 years of prevarication, someone else got there first, and now at last they have the rustic charnel house properly designated.

With London shop signs, it is not just typos like ‘confectionary’ and ‘stationary’ (used as a noun) that abound, there is also a fondness for tongue in cheek word play, frequently related to the specific metropolitan area. Hence in Brondesbury, there is a café called Brondes Age, and ingeniously in Kew Gardens the optician is called EyeQ, in line with umpteen local businesses revealing the chic letter Q as opposed to Kew in their title. Yesterday I visited the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury area (part of Islington) for the first time in my life, where I saw more of the same compulsive word play, though this time of the entertainingly laboured variety. On a plaque outside a pub called Doyle’s Tavern I beheld the following ingenious poem:

Alcohol is not in my vodkabulary

However, I looked it up on whiskeypedia

And learned if you drink too much

It’s likely tequilya

That last word saves this cautionary tale from jovial sentimentality, and the spelling of whiskey confirms that Doyle is or was an Irishman.

Further down the road, I was truly shocked to see that right in the middle of the community is a huge prison with all the usual trappings of barred windows and coiled wire at its highest reaches. I had no idea that prisons could be plonked down in the public eye so to speak, nor that this notorious one was 2 minutes walk from an overground station. HM Pentonville Prison is on the Caledonian Road, and it has a cheerful welcoming sign for the general public, and one wonders if its inmates ever see the same salutation on arrival. If they do, they are also likely to see something even more startling, for directly opposite the prison on the same major thoroughfare, is an enormous café that is called, wait for it, The Break Out Café. A quick scan online reveals that the blackness of this title is well understood, as you read from one Brian C, ‘So I ended up at the Breakout Café, ironically because I had to go into prison. But only to run a training course thankfully…’ Meaning you were only a cheerily whistling day tripper, Brian, and could have sat there all day, a free man in the Break Out after your teaching was over, had you so wished.

As for myself, I’m so naïve I am genuinely surprised the authorities haven’t forced the café to call itself something else, as that jokey name seems to be treading the precarious unknown land between incitement and vicarious wishful thinking. Because of course, every time we watch a film where the criminal is fleeing to evade the relentless cops, we always want him or her to succeed, as on some primal level we always identify with the panicking hunted rather than the determined hunter…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 16th January



My daughter Ione, her partner Ado and I, have recently spent the week before Christmas in Cyprus, my very first visit to what is regularly called the gateway to the Middle East. Meanwhile, if you’ve lived 6 years on a tiny Cycladean island like I have, you are bound to find the Greek half of Cyprus where we stayed, a radically different experience, and to feel as if your cosmopolitan registers are continually out of synchrony. For a start the place is full of an unusually random assortment of foreigners, with a scattering of expat Brits (some of the forlorn and gabbling barfly variety) but many more émigré Russians, so much so that nearly all shop signs are in Greek, English and Russian, and some in Russian only. For reasons I could never understand, even when explained at length, there are an inordinate number of Punjabis, working mostly as waitresses, and even as proficient chefs in Lebanese restaurants, some of them with good English, and some of them with barely any of the lingua franca, or much Greek come to that. Time and again in cafes, whether one spoke to the young Punjabi women in English or Greek, they did not understand, and had to go and get their Cypriot colleagues to translate. Given that they barely know a single handy tourist language, the obvious question is why are they taken on, and the cynical and half accurate view is that they undercut the locals when it comes to wages, and thus do them out of a job. In which patriotic connection, Greek Cypriots are proud to be precisely that, and politely correct you when you ask them in Greek are they Greek, by which of course you mean are they Greek-speaking, not are they Hellenes. As a relevant side issue, approximately 70% of the people of Larnaka, where we were based, evidenced numb incomprehension when I spoke to them in Greek, and more or less obliged me to speak in English. The other 30% had no problems at all with my admittedly home-made doppio, paradosiaki Greek, and I had an extremely lively conversation with a bespectacled ice cream seller by the side of the salt lake near the airport, just possibly because I was his only customer he informed me for the last 4 hours. I don’t think it too fanciful to evidence a modest amount of combative paranoia at this point, for over the years I have experienced the same thing in France, Germany and Greece (though interestingly never in good old Portugal), where they have frowned at my use of their language, feigned incomprehension, and insisted on speaking English. Perhaps not always, but it can at times turn into a dreary, not to say puerile game of irritating one-upmanship, where God knows why, they really like to see you one down.

Cyprus, as everyone knows, is half Greek and half Turkish, thanks to the mainland Turkish junta intervening in 1974, when the lookalike Greek junta of the day tried to annex the whole of the island to Greece (enosis or union as it is called). There were atrocities and bloody massacres on both sides, with massive displacement of citizens on ethnic lines, so that the Turkish Republic of Cyprus (TRNC) has very few Greeks left, and ditto with the few Turks living in the south. Though travel between the 2 halves is relatively easy these days, it is still the case that Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a legal entity by Turkey, and if you want to fly there, it has to be via Istanbul. More colourfully, as the TRNC has no extradition treaty with the UK, it was for long the case that loot-laden British criminals could go and live there lordly gargling G and Ts by their majestic villa pools, and be completely safe from the arms of the law.

Larnaka is a handsome and attractively positive city with an exhilarating sea front marked at the far end with an Ottoman castle and behind it the beautiful old Grand Mosque, the Buyuk Camii, which is still used for worship by the town’s few Muslims. Another thing to praise is the inordinate number of small independently run art galleries, often showcasing mainland Greek artists as well as Cypriots, and with the standards on display, for this relatively small city, being surprisingly and movingly high. Away from the immediate centre, predictably most of the architecture is modern faceless suburbs, interrupted by supermarkets or often enormous kiosk peripteros, and the ubiquitous souvlaki joints. There are lots of restaurants in Larnaka, the bulk of them serving Cypriot cuisine which tends towards the grilled meat of kebabs and souvlaki, and vegetarian main options invariably resolve to the native halloumi cheese, which for the first time in my life I found myself getting sick of. If you are used to the generous variety of Greek meze and ladhera, things like tomato and courgette keftedes and fava bean puree, gigantes and yemista stuffed tomatoes, you will be seriously disappointed by the Cypriot option of either tzatziki or a plate of olives. As well as competing for lunch and dinner customers, most of the promenade eateries offer bargain inclusive breakfasts which range from the hideous Full English to a Cypriot version of fried eggs, mushrooms, olives, grilled halloumi and salad, usually accompanied by toast, butter and jam. A winter season indolence can sometimes manifest itself in the latter context, for one day my Cyprus breakfast had everything present apart from the customary 2 butter pats. I said as much to the waitress who agreed there was indeed none, but added it was presently defrosting and would be ready for me in an hour’s time. As I gasped my astonishment, and echoed, an hour! Ione urged me to do something about it, and get some butter from a shop. Cue my sweating a good half hour trying 4 supermarkets over a mile-long trek, before a Polish place yielded 4 pats at a 10 humble cents each. By that time of course both coffee and toast were stone cold, but better to eat cold buttered toast than its unspeakable dry analogue.

The other curse of lazy Cypriot restaurants is the prevalence of frozen as opposed to freshly made chips/French fries. One or two breakfast places boastfully chuck them in as part of their Full English or Full Cypriot munificence, so that you have a pleasingly mountainous plateful on the lines of those scoffed by the gluttonous Three Bears in The Beano circa 1968. Yet it is impossible to exaggerate how depressing frozen chips can be on the tenor of an otherwise promising morning. To start the day with them is even worse than ending the day ditto, for it is a kind of gnawing prelude to nameless discomforts, frustrations and anticlimaxes that will unerringly keep coming your way, for no other reason but plain existential cussedness and to teach you the important moral lesson that no matter how hard you try, you will never really be in control of your life, not when someone is prepared to ruin your eggs and mushrooms by the addition of chip shaped Polyfilla. You can of course try making them palatable with the addition of Heinz tomato sauce, but you will have about as much success with that as you would by rubbing your inner thighs with the same item prior to anticipated bedroom intimacy.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 11th January