THE POGUES AND DR SEX

The next post will be on or before Thursday 28th February

THE POGUES AND DR SEX

(ANSWERS TO MY VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ)

The winner (and only entrant!) was DS Mackay of Glasgow, Scotland who got the last 3 questions right. He rightly assumed that no one would get the other 4, which one other would-be competitor described as ‘hard’. I have sent him signed copies of 2 of my novels as promised

1.Which world-famous band who sang in English had a name in a foreign language that included the imperative of the verb ‘to kiss’?

The band’s name could only translate as either ‘Kiss me Quickly’ or ‘Kiss my Arse’, and you’re right, it is the latter. The British-Irish punk band The Pogues started off in Kings Cross, London in 1982 and were then called The Pogue Mahones, an anglicised version of pog mo thoine which is Irish Gaelic for ‘kiss my arse’…

2. In which language does the word ‘dashuri’ mean ‘love’?

Albanian. Note also that if you are a foreigner, you can always make Albanians laugh with the rhyme dua grua which means ‘I want a woman’. Re which, see also Uncle Theo, the mental patient in Fellini’s 1973 comic masterpiece Amarcord, who climbs a tree and won’t come down, shouting in his desperation to the whole world Voglio la donna!

3. A Victorian author from London wrote a novel in which an obscure Cumbrian seaside village provided the romantic denouement. Give the name of the author, the novel and the seaside village

It was George Gissing, best known for ‘New Grub Street’, who wrote the fine ‘The Odd Women’ (1893) whose romantic climax takes place in Seascale, near Whitehaven, Cumbria. Gissing visited Seascale and the Lake District as a child. You might also have heard of Seascale in the context of it having an anomalous number of childhood leukaemias in the late 1970s, possibly on account of its proximity to the BNFL/ Sellafield nuclear facility. Note that the distinguished UK feminist press Virago printed 2 novels, both of them written by Victorian men and both sympathetic to women, one ‘The Odd Women’ and the other ‘Diana of the Crossways’ by George Meredith

4. Which US singer had 2 romantic hits which started with the words ‘Take’ and ‘More’ respectively. (Give away clue. One of his names sounds like a single letter of the alphabet)

It was Bobby Vee aka Robert Velline (1943-2016) whose two 1961 hits ‘Take Good Care of my Baby’ and ‘More Than I Can Say’ made it to numbers 3 and 4 in the UK Top 10. He was only 18 years old with both hits, and he was also my very favourite singer when I was aged 10 in 1961. That day many years ago when the late Bob Monkhouse smashed up one of my hero’s records on Radio Luxembourg’s ‘Smash Hits’, I was very angry. Sadly, Bobby Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012. Bob Dylan once went public that Vee was ‘the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with’. Be aware also, that being called Bobby in 1961 in the States was a big help if you were a celebrity male singer, as witness Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell and Bobby Darin (I hope you also noticed the 2 truncated Bobbys = Bobs= Dylan and Monkhouse above)

5.Why would a stick of celery have romantic associations (keep it clean)?

Celery along with chocolate, chilies and pomegranates, is recognised as an aphrodisiac food. It contains the steroid androstenone (also found in truffles) which explains why men since the 18th century, up to and including modern porn stars, have been guzzling celery to enhance their performance. Apparently, if a female pig inhales androstenone she immediately assumes the mating stance…

6. Which author of a famous sex manual filed for divorce claiming that the marriage had never been consummated?

It was the Englishwoman Marie Stopes (1880-1958) and she divorced her first husband who was a Canadian called Reginald Ruggles Gates. She published ‘Married Love or Love in Marriage’ in 1918 which included controversial material on contraception and it became an instant bestseller, though she was later taken to court by a Catholic professor. She lectured on paleobotany at University College, London and was the first female academic at Manchester University

7. Which self-professed anarchist believed that serious lovers should think in culinary gourmet terms?

Easy this, and the word ‘gourmet’ was the give-away clue. In 1972 Dr Alex Comfort (1920-2000) who was a doctor, novelist, anarchist and pacifist published ‘The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking’ which was another spectacular bestseller. Borrowing from the great oriental writers like Vatsyayana of the Kamasutra, he stressed that sexual foreplay was the be all and end all, and that asking your partner what they wanted and giving them it if possible, was the ideal. He quickly became known as Dr Sex, and his 30-year marriage broke up soon after. His second wife had been his (presumably secret) mistress for the previous 10 years

NB. There were only 7 questions as 7 is a more romantic number than 10…

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VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ

The next post will be on or before Thursday 21st February

VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ

1.Which world-famous band who sang in English had a name in a foreign language that included the imperative of the verb ‘to kiss’?

2. In which language does the word ‘dashuri’ mean ‘love’?

3. A Victorian author from London wrote a novel in which an obscure Cumbrian seaside village provided the romantic denouement. Give the name of the author, the novel and the seaside village

4. Which US singer had 2 romantic hits which started with the words ‘Take’ and ‘More’ respectively. (Give away clue. One of his names sounds like a single letter of the alphabet)

5.Why would a stick of celery have romantic associations (keep it clean)?

6. Which author of a famous sex manual filed for divorce claiming that the marriage had never been consummated?

7. Which self-professed anarchist believed that serious lovers should think in culinary gourmet terms?

NB There are only 7 questions as 7 is a more romantic number than 10!

Answers to johnrmurray857@gmail.com

The correct answers and the name of the first person to get all or most answers will be printed on or before Thursday the 21st February. The winner will receive signed copies of 2 of my novels…

NEW AGE OR BUST

I will be busy for the next 2 weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 15th February

NEW AGE OR BUST

I don’t know about you, but I seriously struggle with anything and indeed anyone connected to what might broadly be termed New Age matters. Partly this is because, although the same thing, in another less definitive guise, existed over a hundred years ago, in the form of e.g. Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky, as well as Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, or the teachings of George Gurdieff, the New Age phenomenon, as the name suggests, is what appears to have come to the fore in the last 30 or 40 years. It thus seems like something that by its own designation, is on the lines of a contemporary fad or passing novelty. A reasonable enough refutation of that, is that at first glance the various beliefs and/or therapies might seem like very disparate, hence unconflatable things: Reiki, Crystals, Aura Therapy, Astrology, Reincarnation, Feng Hsui, I Ching Divination, Meditation, Homeopathy, and you can add a few more yourself ad lib. Some of these practices, of course, in different contexts have a respectable and very ancient pedigree that no one would sensibly scorn. Devout Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others within a disciplined spiritual context, will practice meditation in order to get closer to a hoped-for transcendental fulfilment. Likewise, the discipline of meditation is often linked to the very old Hindu discipline of Yoga as expounded by Patanjali in his Yogasutras (compiled pre 400AD?). Not only does Yoga if practised properly help you to relax, it does powerful things for the heart and other organs, and your circulation, and is also one of the few remedial disciplines that can be done by people with mobility problems and even partial ill health. To that end, and alongside the Chinese discipline of acupuncture, it is often recommended by hard-headed doctors and even surgeons as being both empirically testable and provably beneficial.

It is worth emphasising what isn’t always obvious, that all New Age gnoses concern themselves primarily with that which is therapeutic, in the sense of their adherents, via the guidance of a practitioner or trained expert, will try to make themselves healthier (usually by alleviation of a specific symptom) and/or psychologically happier. In the main, the practitioners do not attempt verifiable or statistical confirmation of what they practice, but instead rely on anecdotal first-person response (I feel a lot better/I feel a bit better/ I don’t feel much better) and the fact their client keeps on coming back and giving their £50 cheque or card payment every visit. The practitioners might reasonably argue that the client keeps coming back, as they feel the benefit of their trained intervention, though it could also be argued they keep on coming back on the placebo model, that in wishful thinking terms they imagine they definitely feel a bit better, when a sugar pill bogus vitamin concoction might achieve the same improvement.

The problem is that any therapy or gnosis that only justifies itself by anecdotal response, is always at best bound to be trapped inside a loop of self-confirming and debatable improvement, or less often an obvious stasis, which might mean abandoning or switching the therapies. I once knew a highly educated middle-class Englishwoman, a gifted artist in her 60s, who had serious and chronic insomnia, despite the fact she had a long dead spiritual guru who she venerated, and also had a strong belief in astrology and Hindu-style reincarnation. Her postcode came within that of Glastonbury, Somerset, which even people who have never heard of Reiki know is the UK New Age capital. Her GP prescribed sleeping tablets for her, but she preferred to dose herself with antihistamines which she reckoned to be more effective and with less side effects. The antihistamines tended to work and knock her out to get a joyous 3 or 4 hours of unbroken sleep, but as she was frightened of becoming addicted to them, she would only take them on alternate nights. The nights she didn’t take them she invariably had no sleep. Her standard conversation then was the ins and outs of her sleeping patterns which she relayed to all her friends as if they were the most important thing in the world, and it never seemed to strike her that they might not be. She was very obviously trapped within a loop which she was unable to visualise from the inside, and she vehemently indeed angrily dismissed as nonsense that her Glastonbury postcode had anything to do with it. All of the ins and outs and nuances of her sleeplessness, were manifestly very significant to her, even though they changed their precise details from day to day, and were impossible to remember a week later. And as I say she was 60 years old, rather than 20 years old…

Now to my own unverifiable therapeutic anecdote, and I will admit right away there might just be a New Age explanation for it and no other. In a nutshell, yesterday I went into a supermarket in the island port, and bought myself a new plastic swing bin for my kitchen, and believe me it has changed my life more radically than any single purchase reasonably should. To clarify, my previous swing bin for kitchen refuse came from the same supermarket, it was the only one they had at the time, and it was one of the ugliest objects conceivable. It was of a standard Greek design, about 3-foot tall, and with a hinged lid and a footpress, but strikingly tubular, meaning it was vaguely reminiscent of a truncated post box that had weirdly got on the loose. What made it a singularly repulsive object was that it had an impressively shit brown lid and a lighter but also remarkably bleak shade of brown for the tubular body. It seemed the kind of thing they might have had in the kitchen of a severely unenlightened possibly punitive mental hospital circa 1952, in some particularly ugly and depressing northern UK town like Widnes or Skelmersdale or Runcorn or Ramsbottom. It cost me an extortionate 15 euros when I purchased it 2 years ago, and Lord knows what sort of affective paralysis took a hold of me that I suffered it for more than a day in my otherwise cheerful kitchen. Perhaps my subconscious and my ego and id and superego were more default Cumbrian curmudgeonly than I thought, and could not bear to waste the 15 euros. To put things in perspective, every time over the last 2 years I looked in that corner where it lived (or better sulked or fumed or glowered or voted for Brexit) I felt my spirits sink, and therefore more often than not I looked away and pretended my ugly kitchen bin did not exist.

Then yesterday, because no doubt at long last my prescient subconscious must have realised the 15 euros outlay had at last thoroughly expended itself, I went out with resolve to the same shop, even though not at all confident they would have a single swing bin, or if they did it would be squamous khaki green like the excrement of a sick budgerigar or a macaque. And yes, right enough, they only had the one bin, which again was hinged and tubular and reached up to the height of my belly button, but lo and behold it was a radiant and glorious white! with rapturous hints of the innocent, the angelic and the kindly, rather than the sullen and diabolic misanthrope who currently squatted in an unyielding pro Brexit sulk in my kitchen. I purchased this beaming white orphan of a bin immediately, for an outlandish 20 euros, but who cared about anything as transient as money as I brought it triumphantly home. Then I picked up my hideous little lodger tenant of 2 years, the glowering dung beetle/ Mistkafer, and took it along to the communal rubbish skip and let it do its joyous sulking there.

So, you ask, what might be the point of this swing bin anecdote of yours, in New Age, or in any other therapeutic terms? The fact is that although on some level I knew if I replaced the ugly bin with one less ugly, I would feel happier in my Kythnos kitchen, I was wholly unprepared for that revolutionary change, whereby the pristine heavenly whiteness of the new arrival would give a complete new dignity to that corner next to my back door. And not just a dignity, but whimsical and arch as it might sound, a measurable and confirmable happiness to that same corner. Previously with its leaden occupant, it had been a palpably unhappy and static little area, whereas now like one of Dickens’s always cheery Yuletide fires, it was suddenly a cheerful and a happy corner. A child would have understood as much, for in their story books, or in those ancient 40s and 50s Disney cartoons, they often see cupboards and furniture with smiling and benevolent faces. And more to the point, in an adult context, very evidently the precise way a person furnishes their rooms, or disposes their books on a shelf, or hangs their pictures on the walls, meaning the incalculable, infinitely minute and nuanced variations of one object set beside another, these are so to speak the cartography and the choreography of the human heart, or if you prefer (and I am not talking New Age now, even if you think I am) of the Eternal Soul. Meaning perhaps, an infinitely skilled practitioner might be able to diagnose a person’s happiness or unhappiness, by a close survey of the precise decoration of their sitting room or kitchen or bedroom, and make convenient suggestions as to how they might change the room, and indeed themselves, for the better.

And where better to start than with the place where, thanks to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, everything goes in the end, the rubbish bin?

THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

I will be busy for a couple of weeks, and the next post will be on or before Friday, February 15th

THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

It was in the early summer of 1975 when I was 24 years old, that I found myself suddenly stranded en route from London to my home in the unusual and certainly the only Irish Cumbrian town in existence, known as Cleator Moor. I was still the perpetual student and I actually preferred hitchhiking to orthodox travel, but I had been fool enough to take a lift to the remotest reaches of South Cumbria, which is about as handy for Cleator Moor as Strathpeffer or the Isle of Muck. The consolation was that the littoral landscape in early June was astonishing, a gigantic sandy estuary burnished to purest, wildest gold in the evening sun, reaching up all the way from Barrow in Furness, an ugly and saturnine town if ever there was, to as far as and then beyond Millom, an obscure little community that once had a busy ironworks, but these days has nothing, albeit it can boast of being the home town of the gifted poet Norman Nicholson, who TS Eliot himself once published with Faber and Faber.

I was dropped off at a Millom suburb known as Green Road, full of pristine bungalows and tidy semis, and which happened to have an unmanned railway station, and where a train up to Whitehaven departed in some two and a half hours. From Whitehaven I would either catch the last bus or leg it all the way to Cleator Moor, and then walk uphill in the pitch dark along what had once been an ancient Roman burial route, to the rented room I had in a terraced house out in the open countryside. I could have kept on hitchhiking from Green Road, but there was no traffic worth the name in this quaint and characterless cul de sac, so I decided to sit on the sun-soaked platform and read and wallow in the warmth. The view across to the open sea was infinitely mesmerising, an enormous ocean of molten and purest gold, yet far more valuable than any real gold could ever be. No precious metal would ever look like this tranquil yet surpassingly potent hallucination of an estuary, even if the stark sociology that winged it on either side was impressive in its sheer unflinching crudity. Where it started, Barrow in Furness, was where Vickers shipbuilding constructed nuclear submarines, and where it terminated subtended British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield, which thanks to its periodic unscheduled leakages of radioactive plutonium 238 was frequently referred to as ‘Land of the Leaks’, a fortuitous parody of an innocuous coffee table book by the local author Melvyn Bragg, entitled Land of the Lakes

Suddenly a busy little man of about sixty, the kind who is always bent at an angle as he is always in such a rush, walked by me and immediately halted to talk. He was short, wiry, had brilliantined hair, an open and friendly face, and was obviously instinctively sympathetic to the young, including the long haired and bearded variety that was mine. Belatedly, I took in that he was wearing a species of uniform that belonged to British Rail.

“The Whitehaven train? Two and a half hours to kill? Would you like a coffee over in my signal box?”

I looked at him gratefully, as I was indeed dying for some coffee, to which I have been long addicted. Though believe it or not, it wouldn’t be the first time I would enter a signal box, as my warm and kindly Uncle Joe had been a signalman all his life, alleviating any incidental boredom with the Light Programme blaring out much of the day on his battered old transistor radio. Crossing the track, the little man asked me where I lived and when I mentioned Cleator Moor his eyes at once lit up. He was a Millom man himself, and was also an accordionist and folk singer, who had often performed up in the West, the Moor included. He was called Ted, and in a couple of minutes Ted wormed out of me that I was a writer, who had had nothing published but was dedicated to the task. I had a wall decorated with countless rejection slips, I wryly informed him, but I would never give up until I had one of my books between covers.

“It’ll happen,” he said wisely, and with total assurance. “It doesn’t happen to everyone but it’ll happen to you…”

His face was too homely for him to be a clairvoyant, or to have any occult or prophetic powers, but the same thing might not be true of the extraordinary person who was sat there motionless inside the signal box. Ted hadn’t told me he had a guest, and at my first glance the strange visitor was rather like a huge and pensive owl or possibly Dodo or even a Great Auk rooted there on an old-fashioned armchair, whose dilating avine eyes were glinting away in the beautifully refracted sunlight…

That hallucinatory vision was what I observed in a rapid instant, but then I noticed that the huge owl was wearing glasses, one of whose lenses were very thick, which owls might well have in children’s books, but not in a signal box in suburban South Cumbria in 1975. In fact, what I was looking at was a very old bespectacled lady, who was present in some kind of rare and rarefied condition, barely corporeal, and more as if she were half way between mortal and immortal. At the sight of me, she suddenly cleared her throat, but it was the gentlest sound imaginable, as if it had been the mildest chirp of a sparrow or a lark…

“My mother,” Ted announced with a nod, and you could discern the pride in his voice, for it was clear she wasn’t just any old South Cumbrian mother, but instead an impressively timeless and ineffable Presence.

The old lady turned to me very slowly. “I’m eighty-nine years old. How do you do?”

After a pause, I said respectfully, “That means you were born in either 1885 or 1886. I was born in 1950 and I’m twenty-four years old . How do you do ?” 

She blinked her old bird’s blink through the very magnified lens, and it looked to me as if she might have cataracts and might even be half blind. Then she said she was called Euphemia, which was an august and impossible name, though she added that everyone always addressed her as Phemie. In the same breath and with a quaint curiosity, she inquired whether I were a married man or just courting. I smiled at her as did Ted, and told her that neither was the case, though it wasn’t for want of looking. Then as if she were my natural and chosen confessor, I said I had broken with my teenage sweetheart Marjorie nearly five years ago, and had pursued an up and down and very unsatisfactory course since…

Euphemia answered calmly, “Aha. I see. Well you might as well listen to me, if you wish. Try being bold is my advice. Boldness is everything. It really is. If you like someone, no matter how shy you feel, you go and walk right up to her, and ask her out, don’t hesitate. If she says no, it might be disappointing, but keep asking other girls you like until eventually one says yes. Sooner or later, one of them is bound to say yes, even if you are a leper, which of course you’re not. That is how things happen, and that is how they work. It’s no use hanging back and making a meal out of everything, is what I’m saying.”

Ted was grinning and shaking his head by her side, and it was obvious that his confidence in my success as a writer, was simply a variation on his mother’s prophetic confidence about my romantic future…

Euphemia then murmured in an ironic tone, “Can you guess how it is I know so much about human nature?”

I looked at her for quite some time. “You might have been a hospital nurse, I suppose. And if that’s the case, you know all about people at their limits of life and death and fear and mortal terror and…”

She snorted. “Like hell. I’d never have put up with wiping all the shit and snot and whatnot, and especially with adults. I had enough of that with all my kids.  I’d had two children by your age, and I was twenty-seven when I had Ted who was the third. My husband Ronnie died when he was thirty-five of what they call haemoconiosis. He worked twenty years in the iron mines at Beckermet, choking and spitting every night with the dust, and there I was a widow with six kids and no means of support. I braced myself and took out the license on a very rough pub called The Castle in a side street in Millom, the only way that I could make an income… and I ran it till 1955 when I was seventy and the brewery pensioned me off. I learnt everything about human nature from the public house, where believe me nothing is a secret, but everything is a secret, as most people never say what they really think. And those secrets are completely unbelievable, but also they are believable, and you could write a book about them…”

What could I possibly say to that? An ancient owl or auk irradiated by pure gold shafts of ancient light was instructing me in the ways of men. And, for that matter, possibly a few brave or reckless women who had nerve enough to drink in that same rough Millom pub between 1920 and 1955.

I asked her, meaning I demanded, “What did you learn?”

 “What exactly did I learn? Oh, I learnt that there are a lot of shivering cowards in this world, especially amongst men. Courage isn’t that hard to come by you know, you just flex your muscles and you do whatever you have to do, whatever that might be. And because of that unusual attitude of mine, I was never out of trouble with the law…”

I looked at her in bafflement, “You mean fights breaking out in the pub…?”

She snorted. “I could quell any riot with a single blink of my eye. This eye here in fact, that has these bloody cataracts on it. The hardest boys from the ironworks would soon shit themselves and start grovelling if I stared them straight in the eye. No, the problem was, I had a lot of trouble with my pub’s closing hours, on account of the fact I didn’t believe in them…”

Ted interrupted, “She never closed the pub is what she means. She would go to bed many a night and tell them to help themselves, and to leave the money in the tea caddy behind the bar. They never cheated her, because if anyone tried to, they would get a hell of a pestling from the rest.”

Euphemia sniffed as she explained, “I was brought up in front of the magistrates more times than I can remember. They always said the same thing. Why do you persist in breaking the licensing laws and staying open half the night? So, I looked at them all quivering away, frightened little bank managers and mousy little shopkeepers, and I said to them, because they happen to have the money, and I happen to have the beer. If they can pay me for the beer, I don’t see why I shouldn’t give them what they want. And they gasped out loud and said, but that is preposterous, that is pure anarchy, you can’t just make up your own laws! I said I can’t see why I can’t make them up, if I’m not actually harming anyone. They glared at me then, and snapped that the men could be at home with their families, instead of frittering money away in my public house. I said sorry, but no, they wouldn’t be at home if they weren’t with me. There are plenty of single men among them, and they would be in one of the bachelor’s houses drinking whisky, not beer, from an off license, and playing cards and losing money all night, and I mean a lot of money, all of their wages many a time. As for me, I exercise control on their behalf in my public house. I don’t let them spend more than a few shillings if they play three card brag in The Castle, and I turf the whole bloody lot out if they try…”

I said to her, “You were obviously providing a public service to half the town.  But magistrates aren’t allowed to think beyond their written guidelines, or beyond their recommended tariffs.  They have to play things by the book, or else. Though I’m still a bit puzzled. I don’t see why you didn’t lose your license …”

The Dodo blinked and just then a gleaming shower of refracted gold from the blazing Duddon Estuary fell upon her cataracts and transformed her for a long moment into a brilliant golden eagle. She laughed or rather she exploded with sarcasm:

“I turned on the womanly tears, of course. I broke down and I wept in the dock! I was a widow with six children, three of them still at school. I had no other means of support, I told them. They sniffed and shuffled and one or two wiped their eyes and cleared their old men’s throats. No amount of my handkerchief-wringing was too much for them. That’s because I worked in a pub for thirty-five years, and I knew all about human nature and especially the nature of men. I knew that even a tight-arsed bank manager turned magistrate couldn’t bear the thought of an old widow becoming penniless just because of him and his heartless judgement…”

I looked at both her and her son, “And it worked every time? Anybody but you would have been frightened that it might not work the next time…”

Euphemia surveyed me in a decidedly magisterial way herself.

“Always be bold and fearless, is my advice. In fact, be good and reckless if you need be. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you have plenty of nerve, and don’t give a damn.  Six kids and no husband can be a good teacher, if you’re only thirty-five years old. You only live the once, you see, though most folk I know decide not to look that in the face. I happen to be near the end of my time, while you’ve just started off on yours, but the same applies to both. You can hide behind your shadow for year after year as the safest bet , and manage to make yourself a kind of life. But guess what happens in the end, if you do?”

I shuffled in my chair. “Death is what happens?”

Euphemia smiled and as the estuary light outside began to glow and burn and cascade through impossible whirls of evanescent cloud, as if indeed this June evening were to be the very beginning of Time, she said to me:

“No. Not death, or at least not real death. What happens if you hide behind your shadow for too long, is that you yourself turn into a shadow. You are not really alive, you’re certainly not dead, but you’ve become exactly like a shadow. And unless a miracle happens, that marks the end for you believe you me…”

A long and heavy silence followed, until Ted, her third child, asked me if I wanted another coffee.

I said to him, “Oh yes. I certainly do.”

And then old half blind Euphemia rose from her armchair and slowly left, and Ted and I started to swap anecdotes about Cleator Moor and everyone we knew there, the wild cards as well as all the rest.

HOW TO FEED STRAY CATS

I will be busy for the next couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Wednesday 23rd January

HOW TO FEED STRAY CATS

It might be thought you need no great prescience nor strategical nous to feed stray cats on a small Greek island, where their numbers are legion and (barring any notional and let’s face it not all that notional Trump-induced apocalypse) I predict they always will be. I suppose it might have been the case if there were more than myself doing the job, so that the pressure of resources versus impatient at times querulous diners/customers had been delegated more equably. Fat chance. In summer when there are foreign tourists on the island, and particularly young Polish women for some reason, they will buy half a dozen tins of cat meat and feed the ones that are hanging around the central cafes to delirious excess.  Athenian tourists and the crowded out locals do not sneer nor try to hinder the kind East Europeans, though their own idea of largesse is to chuck a bit of dry bread to what they usually regard as begging pests, no less than twice a year, whereafter they feel they have done their bit re animal welfare, and some of them would add they deliberately give them no more bread, so that they keep on catching mice and doing what a cat should do by way of respectable Darwinian self-preservation. When I point out that I have seen precisely 1 mouse in 5 and a half years in Kythnos, the same Greeks are smilingly unabashed, and assume that the welcome rodent absence is down to the cats doing their proper Malthusian thing, a kind of inverse syllogistic logic that would defeat the scriptwriters of Monty Python, never mind me.

But down to basics. There are 4 different types of tinned cat food available on Kythnos, and only one is a brand I can confidently work with when it comes to efficient distribution to the strays. It is called Rokus and it flies out of the tin easily and usually does not have excessive gravy (imagine the opposite and a strong Cycladean wind coming off the choppy briny, and me being drenched head to toe in a sort of malodorous Oxo concoction). Having removed the ring pull lid I can simply fling it democratically in a wide arc on the concrete abutting the sea front and well out of the way of any café. It costs 60 cents (57p) and can feed between a dozen and 20 strays with half a dozen meat nuggets each. I am as you probably know a vegetarian, but I can easily forgive the cats their carnivore nature, and give them what they want, on the tried and trusted Levi-Strauss anthropological model of Structuralism that I have faithfully practised since about 1970, viz that you put yourself in the existential shoes of whatever phenomenon you are studying, whether it be the adherents of the Hindu caste system or the Flat Earthers or the dietary preferences of starving cats, and, if you wish to truly understand them, work from that locus rather than imposing what you think might be suitable from an external perspective. So yes 10 out of 10 for Rokus Cat Meat and I buy it in preference to all else, the only problem being only 1 of the 3 supermarkets sells it, and alas they also double as a busy travel agency and occasionally and without warning close the supermarket for anything between 10 minutes and an hour, and with it lock up the fabled Rokus. Cue the clamorous strays wondering what the bally deuce/ what the steaming fuck I am up to. They do not, being innocent animals, understand why I can’t just walk in and get what they and I want…they know nothing about locks, keys, money, swipe cards, penury and/or excess, Early Closing, Bank Holidays, which explains why no matter how many times I walk past them, they always expect yet another meal from me. Irritating as that can be, especially if one is in a hurry or it is pissing down, I sympathise and identify with them entirely, and for obvious reasons. If you or I are hungry we can go and buy a sandwich or a Mars Bar, or we can go home and make ourselves a hearty meal. If the strays are hungry, they can only either beg from me, or they can default to scouring the communal rubbish skips where their noses get filthy. and they regularly get ugly eye infections and occasionally nasty viruses that can make them sneeze so hard and repetitively they eventually haemorrhage, and ultimately they die.

Which of course confirms the myopic circular logic whereby many Greeks dismiss the strays as unhygienic and repulsive, and shoo them away very often with humourless vehemence and stamping of the feet. Ditto when their small kids, impressed by the heartless adult example, are tormenting them and even firing stones at them. Their parents keep on drinking coffee and ignoring those comical and inconsequential antics, they do not shout at them nor threaten to dropkick them to Serifos as I would angrily threaten the little buggers, if they were mine…

APROPOS THE ABOVE, YOUR INTELLIGENT QUESTIONS ANTICIPATED AND ANSWERED…

Why don’t the islanders get their cats spayed, so that the feline population doesn’t get out of hand?

We had syllogisms before, and now we have a solipsism. Very few Greek islanders would ever claim to own a cat, as evidenced by putting collars round their necks, or taking them to a vet when they are sick. Even if they do nominally own one and feed it, they rarely give it a name, whereas in deference to the Brits as seen on corny old films, usually American ones, they duly call their dogs Rex, Prince, Lord and Duke, as in their English versions, and hope that wishful thinking confers some vicarious aristocracy on the beaming hound. By contrast people like myself who have cats as domestic pets have them sterilised by the single island vet at a modest 35 euros per male and 45 per female. One hero I know, an Athenian immigrant who loves this singular island to distraction, has unbelievably gathered up around 30 strays and put them in his garden, and driven the whole bloody lot in sensible batches to the vet to have them sterilised en masse. Otherwise very few Kythniots would claim to own or be responsible for any cat, they are just like communal flowers or sparrows or seabirds, decorative at best on calendars or postcards, but nothing you would wish to exercise a pointless executive authority over, meaning a loving and custodial care.

Notwithstanding, young and idealistic Athens vets regularly volunteer to come across to Kythnos and other islands, and sterilise the cats for free. This is where we enter the mesmerising La La Land of Solipsism. As almost no islander claims to own a cat, and as the cats by bush telegraph somehow get wind of an imminent and nameless and Lord save us irreversible horror, the wily strays immediately vanish off the face of the earth, until these barbaric and uncalled for invaders duly up sticks and piss off back to Athens, whereupon some islanders, noticing the grubby cats’ anomalous absence, sigh and wish that that were a permanent reality. The weary and usually underpaid young vets eventually throw up their hands in honest bafflement and depart … perhaps even a mite depressed as their youthful unselfish charity has been so crudely spurned.

Why not feed the strays with dried cat food as it would work out cheaper for you, and probably cause them less teeth decay?

This is a sensible question, but it is obviously posed by someone who knows nothing of the discriminatory sophistication of cats, stray or otherwise. The strays might be homeless, ownerless, penniless and vulnerable to disabling disease, but they still have their curious gourmet dignity, their exacting if homespun standards, and they always prefer wet cat food to dried stuff and certainly know the difference. Some of them simply turn away from the latter and wait for the boring joke to finish, and the delicious Rokus to be brought round from behind my back. There is also a strategic and health and safety issue here, by which for once I mean my own health and safety not the hungry strays’, bless them. To give them dried food, I would have to stoop and drop it from a modest height, for if strewn from any elevation, it would end up flying pointlessly everywhere, meaning some of the cavalier buggers (and remember there may be up to 20 of them) would try to help me with the disbursement, courtesy of their very sharp claws. It can be painful, bloody and distressing to be mauled by someone you are trying to help, and then you need to bugger off home and whisk out the Betadine and let out your anger at their all too innocent mistake by plentiful West Cumbrian multi-element cusswords (effing, seeing, ballocking, seesucking bloody little twats of cats etc)…

OK, OK, but wait a minute…

You too perhaps, dear cosmopolitan animal lover, need to wait a minute. I know a stray cat I call Marjorie who will only eat sliced ham and absolutely nothing else. She passes up Rokus as if she were a victim of terminal fin de siècle ennui, like say a female feline version of Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Apollinaire. Show her dried food and she would probably ask you to pass the nearest opium pipe (plus a copy of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy) qua de Quincey or qua, as we learn to our surprise, Graham Greene…

What I am getting at, is that even the lowest of the low, numberless Cycladean stray cats, most of them with dirty noses, some of them with filthy fur or running eyes, animals that no one owns nor cares about, nor apart from me ever gives a name to, nor is charmed by their colour nor their cry nor their quaintness, that can live or die and probably only I would notice if they vanished one day off the Cycladean earth…that even they, the very lowest of the low, have their inalienable standards…

This is an exemplary and instructive moral lesson, which I believe if studied properly and with due recognition of its parable-style paradoxes, could well lead to a new belief in meaningful truly ethical religion, who knows? And then, once people had decided to be kind and good as a general principle, to all and sundry, friend and foe alike, including these vagabond and therefore subversive animal strays, they would surely start for a change to look after their bloody old cats…in the same way they as a rule look after and cherish their own kids, and come to that more often than not, their wives and husbands…

THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

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

THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Oh £1.20…”

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

DAFT NOTIONS

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

DAFT NOTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at her in amazement.

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

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