The next post will be on or before Friday 1st December


Twice in my 67 years I have relocated from a small, confining and claustrophobic house to a spacious and infinitely expansive one. In 1959 aged 8, along with my parents and 3 older brothers, I moved from a tidy but poky 3 bedroom terrace called 1 Criffel View (Criffel being the Scottish mountain opposite on the Solway Firth) to a former sea captain’s mansion on the other side of the enormous recreation ground of  a pit village called Flimby, near Maryport, Cumbria. The mansion had 7 bedrooms no less, and my 8-year-old soul at once expanded to authentic mansion dimensions and from then on I knew what it was to be an aristocrat which has nothing to do with blood or lineage, believe me, but the ineffable certainty that you have lots and lots of space at your suddenly and addictively born to the manor command…

So it was that 34 years later, in February 1992, Annie, Ione and I relocated from a minute North Cumbrian cottage to a 4 bedroom 17th century farmhouse at the end of a half mile cul de sac, just off the A6071 Brampton to Longtown road, which also happens to be the gateway to Scotland when coming from the north east of England. Immediately we felt as if a huge weight had been taken off our shoulders, as now we had a proper dining room plus a decent sized kitchen, not to speak of a utility room for a washing machine, and a nice little lawn with flower beds out the back, and a possible vegetable garden to the right of that. As an added bonus, it lay smack on an old Roman road called Stanegate which linked nearby Walton with the strategic watchpost at Stanwix, Carlisle, and it had been a ceremonial Roman burial route also, which ought to have portended Latin speaking ghosts, of which we saw and felt nothing, I am pleased to add. We could also look up at Brampton Old Church, a tender and lovely place last used long ago as a mortuary chapel, and where the oldest gravestones said that Crooked Holme where we now were, in the early 19th C was inhabited by a family called Sibson, which of course is cognate or do I mean homonymous with Simpson. At £260 pcm, and even though it was rural North Cumbria in 1992, we were paying a remarkably bargain rent to a moneyed estate for that handsome and secluded sandstone farmhouse. When I left Crooked Holme in 2013 to come to Kythnos, four years after Annie’s death, my final rent was only £400, meaning an average annual rent increase of a magnanimous £7 sterling was being requested by its owners. To restate a gratifying but obvious paradox, if you rent a lovely big farmhouse for 21 years and the rent is a continuous bargain throughout, then whatever anyone else thinks you really have owned the bloody spot for 21 years, especially as it is one which you could never possibly have afforded to buy, and not only that but for over two decades you have not been responsible for any of the substantial structural repairs, including a new  and costly central heating system in 1996.

Being stuck 2 miles outside of Brampton had its consequences. We only had one car, which Annie used for her job as Principal Training Officer for Cumbria Social Services, and meanwhile I had to get Ione, who turned 3 in June, to a Brampton nursery for a few hours a week. The only feasible thing to do was to stick her in the pushchair, with Bill our deaf and shortsighted 15 year old dog in tow, then wheel her up the verge of the very busy A6071 trunk road. My little daughter reasonably enough would like to engage me in enjoyable colloquy about the nursery and Bill and what she’d seen on telly and video yesterday, and I was her eager interlocutor until perhaps a huge articulated lorry flew past and drowned our conversation, whereupon Ione not understanding my apparently churlish silence, would get remarkaby ratty and reprove me. Once I’d dropped her off at the excellent nursery, Bill and I would immediately walk back down the trunk road, I would write for 2 hours, then we would double back for Ione, and the whole travelling circus would hie its way back to Crooked Holme at midday, in order to watch the highlight of both our days, the legendary Sesame Street and  especially those prize child puppets Bert (dogged collector of paper clips and bottle tops) and his friend Ernie, an eight year old moon faced comedian of far greater imaginative stature than the whole of the UK Perrier Award fraternity by a factor of let’s say 10 to the 10th to the 10th.

In the spring of 1992 my novel Radio Activity- A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions, at last found a publisher in the form of Sunk Island down in the lovely cathedral city of Lincoln. Sunk Island was actually a fine literary journal run by Mike Blackburn (born 1954) formerly of Stand Magazine, and he had already published a work by Robert Edric, pen name of Gary Armitage (born 1956), a successful literary novelist, one of whose books Hallowed Ground (Sunk Island 1993) had been inexplicably rejected by his posh London imprint. I read Gary’s novel and it was bloody good, and it was also bloody good of Mike who worked on a shoestring (as did David Almond and I when we edited Panurge), to do my book when it had been rejected by 35 publishers, even including an, excuse me, fucking West Cumbrian literary (an egregious oxymoron, you understand) publishing house.

Just after Ione’s 3rd birthday we took our first family trip abroad and played safe with a package holiday on the Cycladean island of Andros, Greece. We sailed from Rafina, and everywhere there was graffiti insisting that the term Macedonia could only be applied to a historical province of Northern Greece, and never under any circumstances to a country which the Greeks always refer to as Ta Skopje (named after the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia’s capital). We stayed in Batsi, an amiable if highly commercial resort, where extortionate cocktail bars are the norm but where Greeks not foreigners are the principal holidaymakers, thank God. Our Brit package was mercifully invisible,  scattered all over a dozen villas well away from the sea, and the rep was an excellent no nonsense  young woman who actually encouraged us not to take up any of the package offers of e.g. A Typical Greek Night Out In A Village Taverna With Limitless Free Wine. Instead I used her good offices to get us a taxi to visit a remote Orthodox nunnery too far for a 3-year-old child to walk from Batsi. The hallowed and ancient place was opened for us by a tenderly smiling nun of about 30, who had probably had severe polio at some stage as her face was distorted and flattened in not an ugly but a very touching and for sure immediately attractive way, as that lovely young woman’s presiding spirit was very evidently wrought of pure gold and nothing else. She immediately took Ione in her arms, kissed her, then took her off for some loukoumi (Greek Delight, not Turkish Delight, you understand) and got her to bring some back for Annie and me. I often wonder what that unforgettable nun might be doing now and also what she thinks of all those gorgeous and deafening cocktail bars in Batsi, if ever she gets sent off to do some urgent shopping in the nearest town.

That autumn was notable for the repeat showing of an invigorating TV drama series, which I deplorably suspect I would find third rate if ever I watched it again (I am such an unremittingly uncharitable bastard when it comes to my mercilessly vertiginous critical standards across all the arts). It was called A Bit Of A Do and was scripted from the series of regional novels by David Nobbs, all of which were set in the same fictional Yorkshire town. As well as featuring old hands like David Jason and Nicola Pagett, it had an early TV appearance of the excellent actor David Thewlis (born 1963 in fabled Blackpool, would you believe) who later showed his genius in the harrowing and disturbing lead part of Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh. Thewlis also published a very interesting sounding novel in 2007, called The Late Hector Kipling so that how can I put it, he is obviously a man of parts, and I wish I had met him, and I hope one day that I will.

WHAT I READ IN 1992 (from my 1992 Diary)

Up Above the World by Paul Bowles (a US composer as well as novelist who spent much of his life in Tangier)

The Untilled Field by George Moore (short stories by the great Irish novelist, 1852-1933,  who wrote Esther Waters which has been both televised and broadcast on radio. These stories often have bullying and unprincipled priests threatening  to turn credulous peasants into goats!)

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (by an odd coincidence, my discerning and lovely girlfriend Julia, who is visiting me next week here on Kythnos, has just finished reading this powerful example of London noir. She like me was really knocked for six)

The Casualty by Heinrich Boll (my favourite modern German novelist)

The Man Who Died by DH Lawrence

Black Boy by Richard Wright (autobiographical novel by the great US black writer. Contains some harrowing scenes of the hero being bullied and cruelly tormented by whites when trying to do his job as a messenger)

Scum by Isaac Bashevis Singer (who wrote in Yiddish and won the Nobel Prize in 1978)

War and Peace by Tolstoy (about my tenth attempt and I actually finished it)

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (the best known novel of Germany’s best known classic novelist)

I Left my Grandfather’s House by Denton Welch (superbly sensitive writer whose life was cruelly shortened by a severe bicycle accident. I wrote a blog post about him in January of this year)

Eyes Shut by Federico Pozzi

The Pigeon by Patrick Susskind (author of the bestselling Perfume, but this novel is not a patch on his masterpiece, alas)

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot (ignore the title as this is one of her best books)

The Fratricides by Nikos Kazantzakis (giant of Greek letters and author of Zorba the Greek)

Vatican Cellars by Andre Gide (another colossal talent and I read this first about 1971)

First Love by Samuel Beckett (I love his short prose works and especially Worstward Ho!)

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (1851-1921, great but neglected Spanish woman novelist)

Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett (a picaresque comic treat written by a navy surgeon as well as novelist, and be prepared that some of it is very raw, especially where servant Tom Pipes starts cudgelling on the skull anyone who offends his eponymous master. I much prefer Smollett to Henry Fielding and the only novel of his I don’t like is Ferdinand Count Fathom)

The Boys by Henry de Montherlant (a brilliant if rather haughty and uncompromising writer)

Amateur Passions by Lorna Tracy (fine stories in Virago by an American writer born 1934 who once co-edited Stand Magazine with her former husband, the poet John Silkin. I commissioned from her for Panurge 4, 1986, the best essay about the short story that anyone has ever written and ever will. Prepare to be dazzled if you can get your hands on it)

Saga of A Seagull by Yashar Kemal (one of the great Turk’s most touching novels)

The Sea Crossed Fisherman by Yashar Kemal

Strumpet City by James Plunkett (a riveting masterpiece published in 1969, about poverty and politics in Dublin in the early 20th C. He also wrote some very fine stories available in Poolbeg Press)

Collected Stories by James Plunkett (see above)

Savage Paris by Emile Zola (one of my very favourite writers who pleasingly never fails to shock and offend, not even in 2017)

The Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens (with the wonderful villain Quilp who when he eats crabs eats the shells as well)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk (given a surprising demolition job review recently in the Literary Review for his latest novel. I loved and have taught My Name is Red. He won the Nobel Prize in 2006)

The Lost Girl by DH Lawrence (little known but possibly my favourite of his books)

Amongst the Women by John McGahern (a very gifted Irish writer who also doubled as a farmer. I met him at a reading once in Grasmere, Cumbria. He died in 2006)

Iron Earth, Copper Sky by Yashar Kemal

Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis

The Girls by Henry de Montherlant

Dictionary of the Khazars  by Milorad Pavic (stunningly ingenious fabular novel which I assume is out of print now)

Kangaroo by DH Lawrence (a very unpleasant and ridiculous novel where DH’s latent version of hierarchical fascism makes me glad that he never exercised any power outside of being a writer)

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood

Pierre and Jean by Guy de Maupassant (in 1966 some of his stories were televised as prime time entertainment on ITV, in a fine series called The Liars. Can you imagine ITV and even worse the unbelievably debased Channel 4 of 2017 doing anything like that now?)

I The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos ( 1917-2005, trenchant Paraguayan novelist who  necessarily did most of his writing in exile. He came late to the South American Magical Realist scene)

Taking Chances by M J Farrell (aka Molly Keane, another of my favourite writers)

Blind Argus by Gesualdo Bufalino (Sicilian novelist, 1920-1996, encouraged along the way by fellow Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia)

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (I once showed to some 16-year-old Cumbrian technical apprentice students the famous film adaptation of this classic, in which at one point a jealous woman in a 19th C Parisian laundry drags down the knickers of her sexual rival and mercilessly thrashes her behind with a laundry paddle. They all hooted and cheered their unalloyed delight until the Technical College roof was seen to shake. The same bunch really enjoyed reading Flaubert’s Three Tales)

Earth by Emile Zola (I read this in bed after performing at Lincoln’s 1992 Litfest, organised by Mike Blackburn, see above. It is still a shocking novel by any standards)

England by Nikos Kazantzakis

Goddess of the Stones by Norman Lewis

Colonel Jack by Daniel Defoe (everyone knows Moll Flanders but not all have heard of this)

Blood and Wine by Ignazio Silone (another of my favourite authors, who writes like no one else about peasant poverty and those who exploit it)

Maurice by EM Forster (who was brave enough to defend Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the famous obscenity court case)

Plough and Stars and Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O’ Casey (author of the very poignant and funny drama Juno and the Paycock)

Owning Up by George Melly (riotous jazzman and possibly the last of the instinctive anarchists)

Desperate Spring by Fettouma Touati (harrowing novel published by the excellent Women’s Press)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig (amazingly there are some UK Germanist critics who think Zweig is a second-rate writer. They must be crazy in my opinion)

Fort Comme la Mort by Guy de Maupassant (in English despite the title)











My next post will be on or before Saturday 18th November


In 1991 Annie, Ione and I moved from a massive aerial farmhouse stuck up a small North Cumbrian mountain only yards from the Scottish border, down to a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the market town of Brampton. The cottage belonged to the adjacent hotel and was within its handsome gravelled grounds, and from the outside looked attractively snug and reassuring. We had moved there because the farm was so remote and so elevated it was prone to being snowed in in winter as well as having year-round phone and electric cuts, all of which with a little 18 month old daughter seemed a needless and even decadent load upon our parental shoulders. Right away though, we felt the radical decrease in domestic space and I spent many weeks fiddling about with the disposition of bookshelves, tables and chairs trying to make it yield more space than it would. Feng Hsui my arse, I often swore as I discovered that nothing worked and we had to resign ourselves for a while to a tiny kitchen, a modest single sitting room and two little bedrooms above. The most relaxing place to be was outside of the cottage in the hotel grounds, where poultry and a few sheep were kept by the owner’s partner. To the right was an open barn with bales of hay, and there Ione and her best friend Katrina the younger daughter of the hotel would play together, under my rigorous supervision of course, as the one time I left them to their own devices for a whole three minutes they were half way to the busy main road as I tore after them in a blur of terror and horrified incredulity.

By June of 1991 Ione and Katrina were both two years old, and neither could pronounce each other’s relatively fancy names (likewise myriad North Cumbrian adults couldn’t manage to enunciate Ione and called her variously Ilone, Ninone and Iona). Katrina always called Ione the economic Olly, and Ione would invariably refer to her best friend as Keegan. Olly and Keegan were a pair of deviant little buggers to put it mildly. Keegan raced around at considerable speed with a feeding bottle full of Ribena jammed between her teeth so that even today I see the 29-year-old wife and soon to be mother as faintly and permanently coloured purple. In summer they liked doing things like taking all their clothes off and prancing uproariously around the gravel which of course wasn’t what every guest at the hotel wanted to see. Ione also liked shoving the biggest bits of gravel into her mouth to see what they tasted like, and once I’d removed them ramming in whole handfuls for an accelerating entertainment value.

My infant daughter was also capable of objectively shocking behaviour at the age of 2. At her birthday tea which comprised myself, Annie, Olly, Keegan and my in-laws Joe and Ann, Olly took exception to Keegan having a go on her lovely new moulded green plastic scooter. Instead of simply shouting and shoving her away, she grabbed Keegan in an expert neck lock and smilelessly held here there for an impressive time, and I am still trying to figure out how the hell she could have learnt such an ugly manoeuvre at such a tender age, as be assured neither Annie or I ever employed such a thing either for dubious dionysian fun or any other obscure purpose. Picture likewise Ione and her angelic little visage, on Bonfire Night ’91 when we assembled a small fire and a box or two of colourful rather than loudly banging fireworks, as she roundly shocked her doting granddad Joe who was a retired policeman and had seen absolutely everything. There were her parents, Granda Joe and Nana Ann and her Uncle Trevor happily assembled drinking Coke and wine and eating pizza while Ione strode up and down excitedly supervising the firework display. At a certain point her foot went into a small hole in the path and caused her to stumble a tiny amount. Aged 2 my little daughter coarsely ejaculated FUCK! at the top of her voice and I saw Joe’s face look a picture of frozen consternation and epic disbelief. The mimetic and inherited factor was there obviously and embarrassingly enough, as Annie and I were always first class and incontinent swearers but we somehow assumed out tiny infant daughter had never once heard us.


WHAT I READ IN 1991 (from my 1991 Diary)

My Only Child by Frank O’ Connor (you might say that I am a hungry addict of classic Irish fiction. As well as his famous stories O’ Connor wrote a couple of enjoyable novels which no one but me seems to have read)

The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta (1902-1975, one of Italy’s best known novelists. A Sardinian, he was also a leading authority on post-war civil law)

Youth and Gaspar Ruiz by Joseph Conrad

Resurrection by Tolstoy

Typhoon by Joseph Conrad

Three Novellas by DH Lawrence

My Childhood by Jean Paul Sartre (he loathed his childhood as you might have guessed)

Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Collected Stories by Katherine Mansfield (I have recently reread this twice within the same year in Kythnos. She is dynamite needless to add)

Dalkey Archive by Flann O’ Brien (the oddest and most structurally haphazard of his books but very funny)

The Legend of Mount Ararat by Yashar Kemal (brilliant historic novel set in Ottoman times but the harrowing scene where a man is skinned alive is not for the squeamish)

A Small Yes and a Big No by George Grosz (wonderful autobiography by the great satirical German artist)

The Insulted and Injured by Fyodor Dostoievsky

The Hard Life by Flann O’ Brien (see my blog post in these pages from a few months back. My favourite of his books)

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

The Princess by DH Lawrence

My Host the World by George Santayana (celebrated philosopher, essayist and novelist, 1863-1952, who defined beauty as ‘pleasure objectified’. He was born a Spaniard but spent most of his life in the USA and taught at Harvard)

Time After Time by Molly Keane (published when she was rediscovered in old age. Her earlier pen name was MJ Farrell. She had a massive talent which I do not believe has ever been fully recognised as such. I recommend that apart from her unconvincing first novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance you read everything she’s ever written, all of it in Virago)

The Wild Duck and The Lady From The Sea by Ibsen

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

My Apprenticeship by Colette (another massive talent whose husband the appalling Willy published some of her books under his own name)

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess ( I read this while camping on the Isle of Eigg in May 1991)

Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell (one of his Avignon ‘quincunx’ about Cathars and Albigensians and heresy. Not in the same league as The Alexandrian Quartet, alas)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (wonderfully televised)

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad (Conrad also showed an unsavoury attitude towards Chinese ‘coolies’ in his maritime novels)

Bel Ami by Maupassant

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles (his extremely talented novelist wife Jane Bowles is less well known)

The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters by Chekov

The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Homo Faber by Max Frisch(1911-1991. The best known and bestselling novel of this Swiss playwright who was much influenced by Bertolt Brecht)

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan who made her sensational debut very young, cf the excellent French Canadian Marie-Claire Blais who also published in her teens)

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos Laclos (made into a fine film with John Malkovich and Glenn Close)

China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston (controversial Chinese American novelist and feminist and Berkeley professor born 1940. Some Asian feminists have accused her of exaggerating male stereotypes among Chinese Americans)

A Thousand days for Mokhtar by Paul Bowles

Call at Corazon by Paul Bowles

Home Before Night by Hugh Leonard (excellent and funny  Irish memoir)

The Other Garden by Francis Wyndham (novelist born 1924 who worked for Andre Deutsch publishers and is executor for the literary estate of Jean Rhys)

Without Stopping by Paul Bowles (unassuming autobiography unkindly referred to by William Burroughs as Without Telling)

The Family of Pascual Duarte by Jose Celan (an earlier post about the controversial and aggressive and Nobel winner Celan appeared in these pages)

The Confessions of Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars (marvellous vagabond writer who once wrote scathingly about the inhospitable behaviour of the poet Rilke)

Lantern Slides by Edna O’ Brien (a very fine and remarkably consistent talent who is now aged 86)

The Trespasser by DH Lawrence

The Comedians by Graham Greene

Chance Acquaintances and Julie Carneilhan by Colette

Edwin Drood by Dickens (contains the cemetery custodian who amazingly pays a small boy to throw stones at him to keep him awake)

Perfume by Patrick Susskind (compelling historical read and also a fine film with Ben Whishaw and Dustin Hoffman directed by Tom Tykwer)

Iceland Fishermen by Pierre Loti (1850-1923. No one reads Loti nowadays which is a great shame. A French naval officer and passionate Turkophile, his novels were warmly praised by both Edmund Gosse and the eminent Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet)

A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis (one of the world’s greatest travel writers)

St Mawr by DH Lawrence

The Virgin and the Gypsy by DH Lawrence

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (autobiography of the great Viennese Jewish writer who together with his wife took his own life in a Brazilian hotel)









The next post will be on or before Saturday November 18th


‘I put away my bicycle and slammed the garage door. I was thinking of Myrtle, and I looked up at the sky. There were stars, sparkling. I was feeling happy, and I had left Myrtle feeling sad. Why, oh why? I am an honest man: one of my genuine troubles with Myrtle was that I could never tell whether she was looking unhappy because I would not marry her, or because she was feeling cold.’

Note something remarkable about this passage from Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) by William Cooper (1910-2002). Even if you have never read the novel and aren’t old enough to have seen the excellent 1966 ITV adaptation with Ian McShane as Joe the novel’s narrator, you will get a vivid even if subliminal picture of both Joe and Myrtle from this short extract. There are no adjectives describing either but somehow the humorously understated voice of the narrator and the poignant if debatable sadness of forlorn Myrtle are already established and you can see or at any rate feel the pair of them as clear as a bell.

William Cooper was the pen name of HS (Harry Summerfield) Hoff who published a few novels under his real name, but his big breakthrough came when he turned to this autobiographical work published in the year that I was born. He had read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and ended up a schoolmaster in Leicester, the unnamed city of the novel. Afterwards he worked for the Civil Service where he met CP Snow (1905-1980) of Corridors of Power (1964) fame, and Snow is very obviously fictionalised here as Robert, the Oxford don friend, mentor of both Joe and his best friend the volatile and also gay and Jewish accountant, Tom.

The quote above demonstrates an early example of an unreliable narrator as Joe is not at root an honest man, certainly not towards Myrtle, though neither is he grossly devious. He like Tom is an ambitious novelist in his late 20s and his doting and vulnerable girlfriend Myrtle is a graphic designer aged only 22. Joe lives in comfy digs with a landlady and even though the novel is set in 1939 when WW2 is looming, there is an impressive atmosphere of moral equivocation in the provinces. His landlady vanishes every Sunday on a compulsory long walk with the dog so that a female relative of hers can be visited by a much older chap, where after a short delay they vanish upstairs. Joe and Tom share a cottage where they alternate weekends, Joe having a tender bedroom liaison with Myrtle after lunch and beer in the pub, Tom with a young boy of 17 called Steve who is both an unrepentant liar and who is periodically unsure of his sexuality. Tom who is admirably drawn as brave, warm and loyal as well as impulsive, selfish, contradictory and impossible, keeps trying to bag extra weekends with Steve and has a habit of turning up shamelessly when Joe is ensconced with Myrtle. The 2 relationships make a poignant structural parallel as throughout the novel Joe essentially strings Myrtle along and values his novel writing and his independence more than anything, while Myrtle’s analogue Steve is periodically disloyal to Tom, once or twice dating attractive young girls and predictably driving his older partner mad.

Some of the deliberations by Joe about his deceitful egotism and Myrtle’s artless obstinacy are very funny.

‘How I asked myself can Myrtle love me and not want to read my books? How can a woman separate the artist from the man? The answer came pat. Women not only can: they do. And they have a simple old-fashioned way of selecting the bit they prefer. At the same time, I have to admit that if Myrtle had made the other choice I should have accused her of not loving me for myself.’

Another significant force line here is the fact that Joe, Tom and their don friend Robert are planning to emigrate to the USA in the face of imminent war, not least because Tom is Jewish. This is carefully kept secret from Myrtle until it accidentally spills out when she accompanies Joe to see Robert in Oxford. The constant dramatic motif is that she wants marriage and Joe does not, and both of them are chronically incapable of stating their irreconcilable wishes. Possibly all this sounds a bit small time provincial, even trivial and parochial, but the excellence of this exceptional novel is related to the fact that Cooper works closely around the anguish of Myrtle being unable to articulate what she wants and Joe likewise often feeling painful guilt and utter wretchedness, whilst perennially unable to give up his writerly freedom (when they do at last discuss going to America together, she insists that he must get a job).  Below Myrtle’s misery and her poignant readiness to turn herself into a pathetic doormat if so required are economically sketched.

‘“I wanted to say I was sorry for being rude to you earlier this evening.”

I felt a sudden stab of pain as I recognized the words – the apology of one who is in love with one who is loved. How well I recognised it! You apologise to the one who ought to apologise to you – to such straits does love reduce dignity and common sense.’

In another and European context this is faintly reminiscent of the Jean-Paul Sartre trilogy The Roads to Freedom where Mathieu cannot ‘commit’ to a woman in absolute existential terms, though that is where the parallel stops, because Joe as the narrator, despite his lucidity and intelligence, has a definite downer on high culture and at one point makes a dismissive aside about the works of TS Eliot. And while we’re talking of culture and where it is said to begin, one other pleasing focus within the novel is the evocation of Joe’s schoolteaching milieu. As a rule, any novel set in a British secondary school is an anticlimactic and deadly dull disaster, but Joe is not an ordinary teacher and moreover half the time is facing the sack.

‘It may not have occurred to everybody that most schoolmasters are preoccupied not with pedagogy but with keeping the pupils quiet. There are numerous methods of achieving this, ranging from giving them high class instruction to knocking them unconscious.’

Joe strikes an amiable middle ground by skiving as much as possible and getting his 6th form physics students to help him do so. They call him Joe, swear in front of him, tell him their closest secrets and keep look out one day while he shins out of the window to go for a walk. The Senior physics master Bolshaw sited next door is of the opposite ilk, and loudly knocks a pupil down which Joe and the 6th formers are genuinely shocked to overhear. Bolshaw keeps tantalising Joe by implying that if he helps him with some tedious calculations relevant to the book he is writing on astrophysics he will ensure that Joe replaces him when Bolshaw takes over from the asthmatic old head of Physics, Simms. As part of the novel’s impressively lateral nuances, Joe periodically notes the intelligence and even the decency of Bolshaw who most of the time is seen as a bluffing and hypocritical buffoon. In fact, if you were to state what single thing makes this novel head and shoulders above its contemporaries, it is that Cooper via Joe sees his characters always stereoscopically, both in their touching strengths and hideous faults, their occasional joys and their regular agonies, and he does it with extreme economy and a light and graceful yet infinitely instructive humour. I doubt very much Cooper ever read much less subscribed to the aesthetic of the ‘English Chekov’ novelist William Gerhardie (1895-1977) but this gently comic and stereoscopic approach to characterisation was precisely what Gerhardie posited as the wisest and highest possible artistic tactic, being effectively a bird’s eye view = Godly view of one’s fictional art as expounded in his posthumous 1981 work God’s Fifth Column.

The plot might be simple but manages to be infinitely labyrinthine also. Tom calculates that their emigration to the States is being hampered by Joe giving Myrtle false hopes. Hence as Machiavellian strategy he makes a theatrical and absurd fuss of her in front of Joe, and even proposes marriage which Myrtle has the sense to refuse. She meanwhile in order to ruffle Joe and change the power balance has got involved with a crowd led by a man called Haxby who is never centre stage and always just a threatening name. Haxby and Co go in for listening to gramophone records and playing absurd party games, which Joe finds deplorable even though it stings him with jealousy. Next Myrtle acquires a dog and dotes on it in such a bizarrely eccentric fashion that Joe thinks she is losing her wits. As counterpoint to their disarray, Tom postpones his trip to the States and buys a car to take Steve on a trip to Paris. Steve refuses to go or even to look at the car, and Tom’s blustering and agonising anguish is simply but powerfully depicted.

‘Steve did not speak. Tom waited. Steve still did not speak. I saw nothing for it but for Tom to go. Suddenly he let out an indistinguishable cry. Steve and I looked at him in alarm. Tom opened his mouth to speak again and failed’

I won’t give away too much of the over-summatory if niftily wrapped up ending, but will conclude by saying this is an outstandingly entertaining miniature masterpiece, if a slightly flawed one at that. Part of this is because although the novel is miraculously liberal and unfoolable in its attitudes for its day, with scenes of Tom pursuing and openly demanding love of 17-year-old Steve in public places, it also shows a bafflingly naïve or at least questionable notion of what it is to be gay. There is no hint that Tom marrying Myrtle might betray his nature, and indeed both he and Steve end up married to beguiling wives and proud of the fact by the end of the book. Meanwhile Joe when he affably buttonholes the reader with his dry but kindly wisdom is always good value, but on the other hand he is always reminding us he that he is writing a novel and that at times can get archly obtrusive. Most baffling of all is that in his account of his mistreating Myrtle regularly he refers to himself by the quaint anachronism of ‘cad’. Surely other than in derring-do school stories and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, that term had well and truly died out by the turn of the 20th century?

That said, this is a superbly entertaining novel, like absolutely nothing else of its day, and if you don’t get round to reading it, you will have missed an exquisitely comic literary treat.


The brilliant 1966 TV adaptation mentioned above was wisely renamed You Can’t Win, which has more of a commercial zing to it than the novel’s tongue in cheek title. I have tried to track down some remnant fragment of it on You Tube, but sadly there is nothing there.


 The next post will be on or before Sunday November 12th


1990 was the year when we were up in the clouds in a literal and vertiginous sense. We moved from handsome Hethersgill village, North East Cumbria to the second highest point in Penton, meaning The Pike, a lovely 17th C farmhouse stuck up a small but sizeable mountain and with very arduous access as a result. Penton is a strange place only a few hundred yards from the Scottish border, and one of the focal points of the Debatable Lands, that lawless and murderous area where English and Scottish reiver cattle thieves held sway in the 16th century. What is surpassingly odd, in fact surreal about Penton, is that it is not a proper village at all but has no less than five separate parts all situated 2 miles distant from the next part, yet all called Penton. One of its units is the comically named Catlowdy which has a few tidy cottages, and it is also where the Post Office used to be. Then there is Penton itself (call that Little Penton or meta-Penton to distinguish it from generic uber-Penton) which includes the former railway station on the defunct Waverley line from Carlisle to Edinburgh, once famous for its flourishing cattle auction adjacent. Bearing right towards Canonbie and Newcastleton is Penton Linns which is only a few yards from Scotland and here the River Esk offers scenic and tender sylvan walks on the English side. In the opposite direction is the beautiful church and the state of the art village hall which are termed Nicholforest and which gets an admiring mention in Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as he refers to ‘the Nickle Forest’. Finally, on the road to Kershopefoot, a lovely and remote hamlet literally 2 yards from Scotland, there is Bushfield, a row of former forestry houses, and here in 1990 lived a gentleman called King Shed. I dubbed him thus as this hulking and mostly speechless bloke had no less than 10 sheds of all sizes in his not all that big garden, and I kept waiting and hoping he would try the lunatic impossible and construct another half dozen while I was there.

Penton was where Ione had her first birthday celebrated on the Scots side at Newcastleton aka Copshaw Holm, always abbreviated to The Holm or in North Cumbrian dialect The Howm. Beautiful, fair haired and spirited Isobel, the daughter at the hospitable and bustling Copshaw Kitchen, provided a little fancy cake with a single candle, and Ione struggled to blow it out until my father in law Joe stood behind his adored first grandchild and did it for her. Penton was also where we got snowed in twice in December 1990, and had to be dug out by a farmer, meaning the lengthy dirt road leading up to the farmhouse had to be cleared by a bulldozer. The first time we were incarcerated, the power went and the phone ditto, so with our one-year-old daughter we were snowed in and completely incommunicado, in those pre-digital days possessing no mobile phone, plus we had no telly, no CD music and only my transistor radio to listen to BBC Radio 3. Annie, who couldn’t get into work in Carlisle was delighted of course, for, partly as a consequence of doing so much taxing group work training, she always enjoyed the Davy Crockett and/or Robinson Crusoe experience.

Penton as I have written earlier was where the retired cut glass accented couple who lived in a beautifully restored barn down below were cordially referred to by us as Mr and Mrs Posh. It was Mrs Posh who told me that Mr Posh had taken note of my sallow skin and thinness, and the fact I was a writer living in extreme rustic remoteness, then earnestly informed his wife he thought I must be Salman Rushdie in hiding from the fatwa. Also whilst living at the Pike I was principal Ione- minder and I managed the art of filling up the day at home with a small child by doing massive amounts of walking on the B road down below. Ione was in a pushchair and our lovely black and tan mongrel Bill then 14 was on his lead beside us. Every morning we walked 6 miles to the railway station and back, and then 6 miles in the afternoon on the road to Kershopefoot. Ione regularly diverted herself by throwing her dummy/pacifier onto the road, then whining theatrically until I retrieved it. Sometimes she waited 5 minutes to tell me as much, so we did a hell of a lot of pointless reverse travel. Sometimes her dummy landed in a patch of cow shit and I was much tempted not to cleanse it by way of stopping her of her deviant habit. Later still she got roundly bored in the pushchair and fought her way out of the safety straps, then stood at the front like a victorious Viking prow motif. I tried keeping her in situ and preserving our precious routine by shackling her with multiple bungee straps. It worked for about half an hour and then as if doing what she had attempted when being born (see previous post), she fought and fought and wriggled and wriggled and cast off her manacles and stood once more at the helm and grinned her self-approval at Bill, and then, and with not a whit of embarrassment, at me.

It was time to buy a second car, of course. But how many struggling writers do you know who can afford the luxury of 2 cars?

WHAT I READ IN 1990 (from my 1990 diary)

Golden Earth by Norman Lewis (he and Dervla Murphy are my favourite travel writers)

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Twilight in Italy by DH Lawrence (at his best e.g. Sons and Lovers, Lawrence is unmatchable and at his worst, e.g. Kangaroo, unspeakable)

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev (first read in 1976)

The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

Childhood, Youth and Exile by Alexander Herzen

Retreat from Love by Colette

Of Mortal Love by William Gerhardie (a rereading)

Song of the Word by Jean Giono (the great lyrical pantheist from Manosque, Provence)

The Cossacks by Tolstoy

Down There On A Visit by Christopher Isherwood

Carn by Patrick McCabe (his first novel which was published by my own former publisher Aidan Ellis. Aidan Ellis then rejected Butcher Boy which eventually made Pat an international name and was filmed by Neil Jordan)

First Loves by Ivan Klima

Vathek by William Beckford

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (the only Austen I have ever enjoyed. I cannot bear Pride and Prejudice as they all seem such absolute eejits. I’m prepared to admit that the fault is all mine)

Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn (the famous American Japanologist)

Malcolm by James Purdy (now in 2017 I can recall the fact I read this in the bath in The Pike 27 years ago. Why do I remember that?)

The Rescue by Joseph Conrad

Black Dwarf by Sir Walter Scott (the title refers to a real character called Davy who lived in the St Mary’s Loch area)

The Dubliners by James Joyce

Redgauntlet  by Sir Walter Scott (I usually find Scott hard going but this is very engrossing and has some fine comic characterisation. However Scott’s attempt at Solway Cumbrian dialect is woefully inaccurate)

Night Falls On Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean (a very enjoyable account of life in remote Sanna on the mainland peninsula opposite Mull. We holidayed there the same year, and our landlady told us that the author was not well thought of by the locals)

Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Condition of Ice by Christopher Burns (acclaimed and powerful novel by my Cumbrian writer friend)

A Tale of Santa Croce by Vasco Pratolini (Born 1913 he died in 1991. A friend of the anti-Fascist author Elio Vittorini, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize 3 times. Pratolini fought with Italian partisans against the Nazi occupation)

Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (a truly frightening masterpiece)

Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce

A Handful of Blackberries by Ignazio Silone (a brilliant and neglected Italian writer who wrote movingly about the exploitation and poverty of the peasants he knew)

The Birds Have Gone Away by Yashar Kemal (best known for Memed My Hawk, the great Turkish writer, 1923-2015, was an ethnic Kurd. He should have been given the Nobel Prize ten times over but never won it. Jailed at times for his Human Rights activism, his later novels were filmed by a German director to great effect)

Reprinted Pieces by Charles Dickens

Fall of the Imam by Nawal el Saadawi (a fine Egyptian writer and also a doctor who was jailed for her activism)

The Card by Arnold Bennett (Bennett was rarely funny but this novel is a real hoot and there is an entertaining film adaptation starring Alec Guinness)

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark (Spark had a huge talent as a novelist. The great thing for her fans is she wrote a lot of books)

Last Post by Ford Madox Ford (the supremely gifted novelist, editor and generous collaborator with the temperamental Joseph Conrad)

Emergency Exit by Ignazio Silone

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (he also wrote Mouchette about a waif of a neglected country girl which was made into a fine film)

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

Final Edition by EF Benson (a study of his literary family including brother AC Benson who once insisted on having all his teeth removed without anaesthetic. EF wrote the wonderful Mapp and Lucia books)

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens





The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 5th


1989 means a lot of things to a lot of people but for me it can only mean the year my daughter and my only child Ione was born. This is such an overwhelming and eclipsing reality that she and the aggregate numeral 1-9-8-9 as one sees it subliminally in one’s head, are symbolically and absolutely interchangeable. If I need to recall the world events of 1989, I think of Ione’s cosmic entrance with much drama and a great deal of sweat and body fluids on June 18th, and if I think of those world events I immediately think of the unforgettable if delayed arrival of my daughter aged zero or possibly 2 seconds into the sweltering North Cumbrian summer and so it goes on ad infinitum.

I’ll get what else happened in 1989 out of the way as briskly as possible. I finished writing my comic extravaganza Radio Activity, a Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions some time in May, then sent it to my posh London literary agent Curtis Brown who immediately sacked me for writing something they could not make head or tail of, not least because it has a whole Cumbrian dialect narrative as well as a standard and orthodox English narrative. It eventually appeared after 35 rejections in 1993, and 14 years later in November 2007 was showcased on Saturday Review on BBC Radio 4 after it had been proposed as a neglected masterpiece by the writer Adam Mars-Jones (born 1954). 1989 was also while we were living in a little snatch of paradise in a small and perfect and crumbling old cottage on an obscure cul de sac C road between Brampton and Hethersgill, North Cumbria. So it was that Ione’s gestation included pregnant Annie and me walking up those lanes full of honeysuckle and fuchsia and hedges full of bullfinches, siskins and serins and other tenderly beautiful small birds. Any baby nurtured on that surfeit of natural beauty as mediated imaginatively via the sensitive mother to the sensitive uterus must end up someone not unexceptional as indeed has proved the case.

I also did my first ever Arvon Foundation fiction teaching down in Totleigh Barton, Devon, one of the hideaway properties of the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), just before Ione was born. One of the students there was Sue Arengo who has since gone on to become a leading children’s writer with her Classic Tales. A couple of weeks after my return Annie’s waters broke on the evening of June 17th and I drove her down to the old maternity hospital in grim backstreet Carlisle. As it happened she had about 12 hours of prodromal or preliminary labour which both of us wishfully believed to the real thing if only because it was relatively mild and followed the model of the bland pre-natal class films where the woman sweats a little as if she had a mild chill, the attentive husband dabs her head piously with moist cotton wool and offers her bottled water, and the baby pops out as painlessly and effortlessly as if on a plastic spring. The gynaecologist told us that the baby was presenting the wrong way round (arseways first, true to subsequent Ione form, as understood metaphorically) which was why things were so slow. He injected Annie with the opiate pethidine, then did his stuff and the labour took off properly. No more was it a pre-natal documentary breeze but there was a great deal of agonised groaning and shouting from Annie and to make matters worse she hadn’t slept for 24 hours and the pethidine made her feel as if she was out of her body and dispossessed of herself, a terrifying experience to say the least.

At last Ione arrived from the darkness and the unfathomable beyond. To my surprise (the supposedly helpful films hadn’t shown the most obvious gynaecological fact) she was covered in uterine blood. The Northern Irish midwife who lived at Melvyn Bragg’s home town of Wigton, God help her, addressed her thus:

“Hiya Toots!”

I have been saying the same sentence ever since, as Ione can attest.

I beheld my little daughter and the most striking thing of all was that she did not look at all like a newborn baby such as I had seen in TV films and documentaries and about twice in real life in my 38 years. No, not at all. Instead she looked like a very beautiful and indescribably tiny, tiny adult. Her subtle and utterly perfect features looked like those of a handsome grown woman of indeterminate age, but in infinitely moving and miniature form.

I did what anyone else would have done in such circumstances. While Annie took hold of Ione, I beat my fists as hard as I could against the hospital walls, burst into tears and I swore my wild delight for the whole of the universe to hear.

What I read in 1989 (from my 1989 Diary)

The Temptress by Vicente Blasco Ibanez (author of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)

Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

The Bell by Iris Murdoch (I loved it in 1989, taught it approvingly the same year, and couldn’t stand it when I read it again in 2015)

Restless House by Emile Zola

Wine Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia (the great Sicilian writer)

Imaginary Life by David Malouf

A Lear of the Steppes by Ivan Turgenev

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (her story collection A Curtain of Green is the best 20th C example of its kind in my opinion)

Ancient Lights by Ford Madox Ford

Heirs to the Past by Driss Chraibi (wonderful and powerful Moroccan writer)

Jackdaw Cake by Norman Lewis (subsequently renamed with a different title. Very funny account of the bonkers spiritualist aunts of the famous travel writer)

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (the only one of her books I really like. I don’t rate her mannered and samey stories one iota)

The Wild Ass’s Skin by Balzac

Festival Night by Cesare Pavese

A Heritage and its History by Ivy Compton Burnett (I admire her enormously but find her incredibly hard work)

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (the best known black US writer of his day)

Best Stories of Ring Lardner (Very funny. He excels at writing about naïve if insufferable idiots)

The Violin of St Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Methuselah by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Flint Bed by Christopher Burns (fine and atmospheric novel by my Whitehaven writer friend)

A School in South Uist 1890-1913 by FG Rea (illustrated memoirs of an English headmaster dispatched to the remote Outer Hebrides, a very long time ago when S Uist, Benbecula and N Uist were all separate islands without today’s causeways. A riveting, sometimes funny and very moving book. Easily obtainable as a Scottish press reprint. Buy it for yourself for Christmas)

A House of Gentlefolk by Ivan Turgenev (also known as Home of the Gentry, A Nest of Nobles and even A Nest of Hereditary Legislators in one bad 19th C translation)

The Schoolmistress and Other Stories by Chekov

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (an author admired by Graham Greene)

The Short Story by Sean O’Faolain

Wives and Daughters by Ivy Compton Burnett

The Barracks by John McGahern (fine Irish writer who was also a farmer)

Middlemarch by George Eliot (I have since reread this twice on Kythnos)

The Devil in the Hills by Cesare Pavese

Gigi and the Cat by Colette (a very great writer)

Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew by Dan Vittorio Segre

One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (this received gushing praise at the time but I thought it was a very bad book. His appalling fictional approach was to make the abduction of a child a kind of stylish rhetorical conceit upon which to deliberate as brainy author. Also he conflated all references to time with all other references to time, which is not profound pace the slavering critics, but a bit of truly gormless sleight of hand)

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (see my recent post about this)



Because I have a teaching course soon, the next post will be on or before Wednesday 1st November


Here is a story to warm the heart and we all need one of those on occasion, don’t we (at least one a day in my case, during a grey and pitiless UK winter in my former pan Cumbrian existence, that is). It concerns a gentleman called Fatty Arbuckle but not the one you ‘re probably thinking of, the silent comedy US film star Roscoe Arbuckle (1887-1933) mentor of Chaplin and discoverer of Bob Hope, whose career ended in disgrace when he was accused of the rape and accidental manslaughter of an actress called Virginia Rappe at one of his parties. Even though eventually acquitted and with a written apology from the jury, his films were banned and he had to assume an alias to get any work. He died in his sleep of a no doubt stress induced heart attack aged only 46.

I write at length about someone not the subject of my story because the other Fatty Arbuckle has had a similarly sorrowful at times pitifully bleak sojourn through his young life. The other Fatty is an outsize grey and white stray cat who has been well known to me for the last 4 years in the Kythnos port here, and it was I who gave him his name in a fit of untypical inaccuracy. Parenthetically Greeks don’t give names to even their domestic cats and they certainly don’t give them to the strays unless they are exceptional and strikingly handsome to the eye, as is my old pal Asproula (it means Little Whitey and she is also known as Riri and Ririka) the beautiful white cat who used to sit every day on my lap outside the now defunct Glaros Café. I blithely give names to damn near every stray in the port and they have extremely unGreek ones like Dexter Parnaby, Tiddles McGroaty, Fanny McCorquodaile, Winnie Warbelow, Gus Golightly, and Horace Bachelor (qv the Radio Luxembourg football pools ad circa 1961 if you are touching or over 60 years old). I dubbed Fatty Arbuckle so when he wasn’t really fat at all, more just a big lad, a hulk of a feller, an approximate cross between a smallish dog and a miniature cow but with a very stark and uncompromising feline face. He looked rather like a roughly executed cartoon as drawn laboriously and effortfully by someone like me, who of course cannot draw…

Fatty was and is remarkably well hung, with impressive progenitorial rotundities, each about the size of a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. Being innocently unaware of what he looks like, and the objects of his attentions likewise oblivious of his debatable glamour, he has always been a most perfervid and pressing ladies’ man. His always flawless amorous technique is to sneak up behind the ones who catch his fancy, then leap on their backs, thus effectively pinning them down, finally roughly biting their necks despite all vocal protests, then having his forthright way with them. Ugly as his bluff  and ad hoc sexual etiquette is, it is entirely typical of his male peers, half of whom because of the competition for the port beauties have a missing eye or a pair of torn ears or rank and hideous wounds along their backs and feline thighs.

Then 3 years ago seemingly tragedy struck. One day I noticed Fatty pitifully staggering about as if drunk, but no it was worse than that, because he had evidently been hit with force by a speeding car and his nervous system was now seriously affected. His balance was completely out of cock, and he did odd little elliptical staggerings, and his head ever since has stayed at a queer leftward inclination. I was filled with pity as well as anger at the brainless desperadoes who fly through the port as if it were the Nevada desert at dawn, and I also thought it likely meant the end of Fatty and he would be dead within a week or so. From then on, he was to struggle hard to get on his usual perch of the canvas roof of the Glaros, sometimes tipping heavily backwards, despite which his nervous system seemed miraculously adaptive as after a few days he was managing to scale it and to stay there mournfully surveying the kingdom where his mistresses roamed rather more carefree than previously. In those days I was feeding the port strays with luxury cooked ham and if ever Fatty with his sadly cocked neck came down from his perch and started begging, I always gave him 3 times what I gave the others, and if they tried to steal from this quizzical looking invalid I shouted and shooed them out of the way.

So it was that Fatty slowly and gradually got over this major calamity, and he kept on bravely going on, kept on foraging for food, kept on squatting on the Glaros roof, kept on enjoying a rampant if chronically insensitive sex life none of whose offshoots, his sons and daughters that is, were seen to walk about with cocked and interrogatory necks like doughty old pops. Fatty carried on heroically like this for the next 2 years, until one day I saw him outside the Paradisos Cafe looking uncharacteristically sorry for himself, and with very good reason. He had evidently contracted some nasty ocular infection, most likely from scouring for scraps inside the rubbish skips, as his eyes were horribly inflamed and he was whining at low volume with a subdued but definite distress.

I looked at him and my throat contracted and my eyes glistened and I felt great anger as well as pity. What right had this poor little bugger to be afflicted not only with a partial paralysis but with cruelly burning eyes that were killing him in an even more demoralising way? Where was the justice in such pointless and undeserved suffering and especially in the case of an animal, not a human, for at least the biblical patriarch Job afflicted with a plague of boils and everything else, at least he had the comfort of his unswerving faith, which never once wavered whatever crippling misery his God chose to strike him with.

I thought at one stage of taking the invalid home, but soon gave up on that as Fatty unlike many other strays had no sense of compliant docility or of understanding human affection. Plenty of the strays in the port will let me pat and talk to them, and some will even jump on my knee, but Fatty quite wisely always keeps his distance, as many a Greek, both young and old, having no time for strays in general have nil patience at all for one who might arguably be described as ugly as sin. All I could do was talk tenderly to him and shower him with cooked ham which thankfully despite all his grotesque afflictions he managed to gulp down.

A year passed and one day I realised I hadn’t seen Fatty for at least 3 months. After his eyes had become his latest and hardest trial, I had seen him once or twice wandering with his gammy little neck down by the rubbish skips on the harbour, but it was September 2017 now, and I hadn’t seen him since at least the start of June. I concluded that he must be dead, the old lad, the old plug ugly Casanova, and there was a raw lump in my throat, because if a cat is not seen for a few weeks much less months it is invariably the only explanation. But then by way of powerful distraction a few days later my daughter Ione arrived for a fortnight’s holiday, and we visited nearby Martinakia beach almost every afternoon. On one of those visits I told her about the passing of Fatty Arbuckle who she also had known since the days of his youth and his once unimpaired mobility. She was as sad as I was, especially when I filled her in on his appalling conjunctivitis and we spent a few consoling minutes telling each other the best of our Fatty anecdotes from the good old times.

The day after that we were back on the deserted beach, sunbathing and lazily chatting, when suddenly there was a hideous feline shriek to our left on the path back up to the village. Ione is as daft about cats as I am and so we raced towards the uproar and saw it was very young female was squawking and running away from the graceless importunities of a crudely predatorial male. The victim raced over the edge of the Martinakia path which drops down to big sharp rocks and is quite steep and hazardous in parts. The assailant tom for very good reason refused to follow his  reckless beloved over and into the gaping abyss, if only because his stilted and peculiar movements were noticeably thwarted and especially in the region of his neck and his head.

“It’s Fatty Arbuckle,” gasped Ione and the two of us immediately threw up our arms in a paroxysm of joy. “It’s Fatty Arbuckle with his knackered jiggly neck and his poor scabby red eyes, and yet here he is and he’s still chasing the women, just like the old days.” Fatty, standing 2 yards away, had his neck cocked at both of us, obviously hopeful of the luscious historical ham  as Ione turned to me with a look of wonderment and added.  “He’s not back from the dead, then, is he? Because he’s never been away from his women in the first place…”


The next post will be on or before Sunday October 15th. The posts for the next few months are likely to be a bit shorter than usual, as I have embarked on a new novel provisionally called ‘Uncle Wilfred’s Book Of Love’


One night in October 2009 my blood was boiling not just with anger but with an all round and uncomfortable loathing. My wife Annie and I were staying in Cockermouth, Cumbria in an upmarket B and B which was part of a lush and smart public house, all full of velvet seats and muted lights and with a kind of old fashioned and moderately oppressive provincial sophistication. We were in the small market town famous for its association with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and hence perennially strewn in every spare inch of ground with waggling daffodils, as I was doing a book launch, meaning giving a reading from The Legend of Liz and Joe (Flambard 2009) in one of the town centre cafes. We were scheduled to meet one of Annie’s friends Mandy for a drink in the bar so were sat there sipping red wine and chatting about the reading, neither of us remotely aware that Annie would be no more in this world as of 6 weeks time. She had had secondary breast cancer for 18 months now, but aside from occasional tumour flare ups looked outwardly fine and was as sharp as ever.

Suddenly and while Annie was at the Ladies I became aware of the conversation going on to my left and immediately in front of me. I took note of about 8 men sat together in the otherwise empty bar, ranging from late 30s to mid 60s, meaning the latter were old enough to be the fathers of their younger companions. But it was not a family group and I worked out from the conversation they were up here from Lancashire on some work-related weekend, and had been booked by their prosperous firm into this posh little Cumbrian B and B. They were decidedly conventional men, and you might have seen their like in any smart pub in anywhere in the UK, dressed like factory tradesmen or factory engineers on holiday, and wearing their best clothes, which was to say there were a lot of  leather and zip jackets that lacked any sensitive tailored style, denims that in one or two cases were a bit more refined, perhaps even expensive, but a give-away surplus of trainers, and about half of them when they removed their jackets wore sweaters in garish colours or with lumpy diamond patterning that looked as if chosen by their great grandmothers.

Right enough they were no Brad Pitts, nor Di Caprios nor Damons nor Dillons, but they had had a good bit to drink as evident from all their empty bottles, were there in a protective group or perhaps more rightly an unwitting pack, and were consequently uninhibited and now it became apparent were brave and bold enough to be bullish and lewdly expansive at the same time. The object of their timely and communal wit was a good looking fair-haired bar waitress of about 25 called Donna, which is to say she could have been the daughter of the older men or a younger sister of the rest. As she walked past them one of the older men gave a wink to the rest and shouted:

“This town, Donna. It has a bit of a queer name eh? Cock-er-mouth. Don’t like the sound of that. Do you, love?”

Donna flinched, then stiffened, as his companions collapsed into rehearsed uproarious sniggers and at once ad libbed their own punning variations which though they came thick and fast were not outstandingly acute. Meanwhile I could hardly believe my ears at the implication of what this leery sexagenarian male in his diamond patterned sweater had uttered. A thin and slight and obviously sensitive young woman called Donna, who he’d never met before tonight, was being required to respond to his queasy double entendre about fellatio, or to put it in Anglo Saxon (and as he would surely have spoken had he been in the back of  a taxi or in a pub urinal with his mates)… cocksucking . Just like that and without any prior notice or mysterious masonic signal, this diamond patterned impresario or stand in for the anarchist racist sexist comic Bernard Manning (1930-2007) had decided it was perfectly OK to talk a to a young and decent woman he did not know from Adam about… about what? About the sucking of manly cocks of course.

So much for daffodils and Wordsworth. Go for a short and restorative B and B stay to Cockermouth (which the local dissident youths refer to  doughtily as Nobingob and where the annual pop festival dubs itself without any sense of irony as Cock Rock), go there clutching your copy of The Prelude or The Effusion  on the Death of James Hogg or The Highland Girl (a very flow’r of beauty is thy earthly dow’r) and instead of a sumptuous cream tea  with linen and cubed demerara sugar, or a posy of Wum’s daffies lying in your lap, you will get Les the chargehand here from Oswaldtwistle or Bacup or Ramsbottom (good scope for uproarious gags there is there not, and especially if you see the first  bit as a verb and not a noun?) talking grade A vacuous  obscenity to a harmless young woman called Donna who happens to be less than half his age.

I shuffled in my seat and felt the heat of pure anger, even rage, rising up my neck, and I was obliged to hurriedly consider all the options. The soundest and safest would be for me to complain to the saccharine and charmless manager out there at reception, but I knew for a fact if these men were taking up half the rooms and were guzzling huge T bone steaks every night, that he would sooner that £5 an hour Donna blushed and had a queasy stomach all the time till they departed, than they the spendthrift boyos-who-will-be-boyos be discommoded. What I really wanted to do was shoot up right away with my blazing face and regale them with all that burning venom and deride and humiliate and piss all over them and their diamond sweaters and their obsolete and infantile club humour. I would ask them in my gravest, most frightening  oratorical voice, that just supposing they’d had daughters or sisters Donna’s age, and if so, were to observe a pack of boozing hectoring slobs, some in their mature 60s, talking unrestrained filth, not let it be stressed in front of her, but at her, how would they feel about it? Murder by slow torture and defenestration would be the least of it eh?

Or on the simplest human level, did they not feel any possible inkling of shame that regardless of their ready dirtiness and her young years, that there was only one of Donna but there were 8 of them?

I even contemplated stomping round immediately to Cockermouth police station, which was only a few yards away. I was confident that the act of talking obscene smut in public to a hired employee going about their lawful business, constituted some sort of criminal harassment or aggravated lewdness or ABH or GBH or worse.  I would leer and snap at these cowboys that that was my intention, and would fabricate a whopping lie and tell them that I worked for Radio Cumbria and would be doing an hour-long feature about their disgusting and of course wholly unCumbrian behaviour next week, no in fact, tomorrow evening…

Three things happened then. Annie returned from the Ladies and her friend Mandy all springy curly hair and an enormous crazy grin shot through the bar door and flung herself upon my wife as if just possibly she sensed there might be only a few weeks of Annie left. At the same time a group of tough and stony Cockermouth women in their late sixties with voices like opera baritones who had just left the bingo, cascaded in, and at once I saw the puerile terror and guilt upon the erstwhile fearless Lancastrians. They picked up their jackets and coats and fucked off as fast as they could go, and though I was greatly pleased I was also left hanging in the air in terms of public excoriation and cathartic j’accuse! and for 8 years now I have thought about it all in every detail, and really wished I had gone to the police and frightened those Bacup or Ramsbottom buggers out of their denuded wits.