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?

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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.

 

A GIGOLO AND NICHOLAS CAGE

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

A GIGOLO AND NICHOLAS CAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I’ve been bad!”

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

“Eh?”

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

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

EAGLE EYE GOES LIVE

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

EAGLE EYE GOES LIVE

What I Did and Read in 2001

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

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

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

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

What I Read in 2001 (from my Reading Diary)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Light in August by William Faulkner

Soldier’s Pay by William Faulkner

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

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

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

Kaleidoscope Two by Stefan Zweig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Tales by Joseph Conrad

Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway

Nicolas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

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

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

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (his 1980 memoir)

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

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

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

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

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

The Mansion by William Faulkner

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

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Autobiography of Isadora Duncan

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

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

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

GETTING HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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