A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 21st November

A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

Yesterday the 11th November 2018, my comic extravaganza novel The Lawless Book of Love (2018) which has never appeared in book form, went digital i.e. became a Kindle e-book available on Amazon. In case you are impressed not to say puzzled by the sprightly old bugger that is me, aged 68, doing something fearlessly and uncharacteristically youthful, you need to be aware it was not my inspiration but that of my daughter Ione aged 29 who lives and works in Leeds, UK. Ione in the last 4 years has done massive and admittedly much needed make-over work on her appalling default Luddite of a Dad in the form of a) putting me on a  dating site and hence after an inscrutable  fashion attempting to sort out my love life b) getting me to write the blog that you are reading now (after my wife of 30 years Annie died in 2009 I had no wish to write anything at all for a full 5 years, which was when Ione suddenly and ingeniously got me kick-started) c) Putting me on Facebook with 2 separate accounts no less, which in terms of routing my uproarious prejudices, was the equivalent of the heroic Hercules cleansing the Augean stables (previously I had always genially referred to it as Arsebook, and I wasn’t using arse in the admiring erotic sense believe me) d) Buying me a smartphone whose principal value is it allows me to take nice photos of Kythnos characters (Bulgarians and Albanians as well as Greeks) and slap them on fb with a nifty little biographical cameo perched below. They are very popular on the island and I even had one likeable Albanian lad unashamedly walking up to me and asking me if he might be next. He added that he would need at least a day’s notice to look as spruce as he would wish to be seen on the digital platform.

To put it all in context, my daughter at one stage trained in digital advertising, hence understands a crafty step by step testing the water tactic when doing any promotion. She is also a dab hand at web design and as an automation test engineer and with a partner Ado who is a very experienced programmer, she is decidedly more digital than most. When it comes to promoting my book, and given that she was only 9 in 1998 when we first acquired the internet, Ione is at the opposite end of my historical and increasingly outmoded notion of the publishing and dissemination of, now that the world is growing ever more a a-kindle, that formerly set in stone 3-dimensional artefact called ‘a book’. In the old pre-internet days to publish a book you had first to buckle down by whatever means and then write the bugger/bastard which might take from 6 months to 6 years to 20 years or more, if like the Sicilian Lampedusa it was your lifelong brooding magnum opus. If you were lucky you would already have a literary agent and a publisher, and if the latter accepted your book, you would wait a minimum of 12 months for it to appear, though these days it can often be 2 years, in which period of course you might act in bad faith and inconveniently snuff it. I am not joking when I point out that those pampered and very successful UK writers with their 3-book deals, often have to take out insurance to compensate the publisher should they drop dead and slothfully omit to be there for the Waterstones’ knees’ up launch in the interim.

The sales route afterwards, is that the publisher waits for good and quotable reviews in newspapers and magazines, or possible encomia from someone famous, either literary or a TV chat show host who salivatingly claims to like nothing better than a rattling good book, indeed far more, with hand to heart, viewers, than his more than justified 6-figure salary. Armed with these reviews, the publishers’ reps then go round the bookshops and take orders, and if in addition the author is being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 or a TV Breakfast Show or even local radio or performing at some splendid litfest, all that should help the books to fly. Such a model only ever worked, and not always then, for the big metropolitan publishers, for nearly all the small independent literary presses such as my last one Flambard, had to depend on being repped by idealistic, virtually philanthropic concerns such as Central Books. These principled and kindly distributors might have literally dozens of small presses as their clients, and even literary magazines that they were repping wherever they could, so that if you were just one of 50 such independent publishers, your chances of sales were slim, even with the best of reviews. This was precisely the case a year after I was Booker-listed with Jazz Etc, when my 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels was reviewed absolutely everywhere, and mostly very favourably. I even got a full page with mugshot in the Independent on Sunday. I even achieved Novel of the Week status in the delightful Shire Tories’ favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph. In all I had 10 reviews in major papers and magazines, all of which sold all of 500 copies of Murphy’s Favourite Channels, meaning no more than vanity press numbers. For argument’s sake, had I been with Jonathan Cape I might have sold 10,000 copies or more. The reason was that my publisher did not have the financial means to promote the much-reviewed book, nor did he have a top honcho rep who only handled a handful of classy imprints such as Cape, Faber, Secker and the rest.

Things have gone severely arse-up for almost everyone involved in the book trade, writers especially, in the last decade or so. People have stopped buying newspapers and prefer to read the news for free online. Book reviews such as they are, tend to be a good deal shorter, and the literary editor if there be one, has less money to pay any reviewer, so that in some cases he or she does the reviewing themselves to save money. When it comes to literary magazines, journals that should be getting their act together and reviewing neglected fiction, often review very little, notably the august London Review of Books which discusses one novel per fortnight, and then only of a celebrity bigshot. Outstandingly the UK Literary Review edited by Nancy Sladek manages to showcase about a dozen works of fiction per issue as well as round ups of first novels and thrillers, but it is startingly alone in doing this, and the situation is getting bleaker year by year.

If you are lucky enough to have your book in both print and Kindle versions, then notionally your Kindle can ride on the back of the former, and sell on the basis of any previous print publicity. But many a Kindle only exists in digital form, and the only other place my book The Lawless Book of Love can be read is via another digital source, namely this the blog that you are reading (see the January and February 2018 archive). Between 1985 and 2009, almost a quarter of a century, I published 10 conventionally printed works of fiction, and any sales they had came via newspaper and magazine reviews, which in the old days zealous librarians used to study and then might courageously decide to buy the new unfashionable talents for their library. My novels were also repped in a modest number of bookshops, mostly in London, even though most of them were set in Cumbria and my family and I were living in Cumbria. It is a stark fact that the bulk of UK fiction sells mostly in London bookshops, whatever the novel’s geographical setting. Many Cumbrian booksellers (Steve Matthews of Bookends, Carlisle, with his admirable Keswick outpost, is a wonderful exception) were extremely leery and far from embarrassed about refusing to take on the local lad, should they have to choose between him and Jeffrey Archer or Martina Cole.

But now it is like a Zen awakening for me. With no publisher these days other than my blog, no literary agent, no bookshops, no reviews, no reps, the only way my Kindle book can shift on Amazon is by nifty advertising, by that and that alone. I am lucky inasmuch as I can quote from distinguished critics, namely DJ Taylor and Jonathan Coe, who have both said very generous things about my writing (‘one of my favourite writers’ from Taylor and ‘one of the best comic writers we’ve got’ from Coe). Using digital means, namely Facebook, and with the advice of Ione, I will construct three ads with lively quotes from the novel itself, and with a testimonial from either celebrity critic, not to speak of a prominent mention of my Jazz Etc Booker listing. Ingenious Ione says that we will invest experimentally in those 3 ads, see which works best, and then concentrate on that one, and invest a good bit more. For a modest amount of money, would you believe it is possible on Facebook to reach 100,000 people, a fraction of what it would cost anywhere else. Meanwhile, I never thought that I would end up admiring contentious Facebook much more than I do the hallowed London Review of Books, and those deliriously squawky Radio 4 book shows, not to speak of the venerable Curtis Brown agents, and those peerless Messrs Faber and Faber and the Bodley Head and all the rest.

But believe you me, I do…

Finally, I would sincerely ask you to wIsh me luck. I am in a Brave New World, a benign and I believe an optimistic one in this case, but I am nowhere near as brainy as Aldous Huxley was. The link to my new book is below.

 

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OUT OF THE BODY EXPERIENCES

The next post will on or before Wednesday 14th November

OUT OF THE BODY EXPERIENCES

A close friend of mine who is reliably enthusiastic about my blog, asked me recently what I was going to write about next in these pages. I told her I had been thinking about Out of the Body Experiences, then immediately hastened to add, in case she thought I had suddenly turned New Age and/ or prematurely senile and begun throwing the I Ching straws every morning to see if I should get out of bed or not, that I had never had such experiences myself. At that she laughed, then said I would soon run out of material, and it would be a very short post. Those who know something of my writing can predict my considered reply, which is that if ever I do run out of material, I simply digress, on the basis that a digression as long as it is interesting and has a basic anticipatory tension in the prose, is as valuable as whatever the original subject was under discussion. I went on to say that in any case the initial inspiration was not re astral projection or whatever you want to call it… but a fond memory I had that was approximately 30 years old. Back in 1987 I was at an unusually enjoyable dinner party in my native West Cumbria where I was talking to a very likeable woman called Mary, a 40-year-old music teacher at a local comprehensive. Mary was exceptionally attractive and in an original way, as she had a pair of lively and mobile eyes that somehow managed to be gentle, and also to radiate outwards that moving gentleness, in a just discernible if immaterial way. Animation and gentleness together, an unlikely oxymoron perhaps, but the older you get and the more you learn of the fabric of  life in all its myriad permutations, the more you wordlessly realise that opposites are often there together and subtly harmonious notwithstanding.

Mary and I weren’t talking about astral projection, but with a great deal of passion about posh types of tea. It turned out we both liked Broken Orange Pekoe, Assam, Darjeeling, English Breakfast (did you know they call it Irish Breakfast in Bewley’s Café, Dublin?) and then moving to China, we praised Yunnan and Jasmine and all the rest. However, there was at least one fly in our connoisseurial ointment, I suddenly realised at one stage, as I remarked:

“I can’t stand Lapsang Souchong, Mary. Can you? It always tastes of iron filings.”

Incredible as it sounds, I suddenly felt I might be struck by lightning for saying something so appallingly heretical, and that despite my Oxford degree in Sanskrit and three works of imaginative fiction in hardback, I was really a grubby working class provincial northern lout, the only things missing being a damp Woodbine on my lower lip and a  shivering whippet on a bit of string. Imagine my relief then when Mary sniffed and stoutly replied:

“Coal bags!”

“Eh?

“Lapsang Souchong smells exactly like coal bags. That is if you sniff them in the coalhouse when your coal’s being delivered.”

I almost applauded as I loved her ancillary detail and the specificity, and I loved even more the fact that Mary wasn’t remotely intimidated by upmarket tea. To return to the start though, and very relevant to astral projection, was the fact that Mary had had a great tragedy in her life somewhere in the early 1970s, which I only learnt of a decade after we first met. It turned out that she had been married very young and when she and her husband were both about 23, he had collapsed and had a rapid and fatal brain haemorrhage in their North London flat. She had coped as best she could, they had no children thankfully… but about a fortnight after his funeral, she had awoken one night alone in the marital bed, only to discover that she was apparently close to the ceiling, some ten feet above her body, and, not unconfused, was looking down on herself who was fast asleep down below.

“Was your husband there?” I asked.

“No, no. There was only me on my own in the bed.”

She added as expected that all of that went against her natural and visceral atheism, and that it emphatically didn’t mean she afterwards believed in the afterlife or the occult or any of that, at which risible checklist she sniffed her exquisite nose sardonically, in the identical way she had when talking about Lapsang Souchong and malodorous coal bags.

I have only ever met one other person who claimed extracorporeal experience, and that was in singular circumstances in one of the dullest towns in the universe, the Scottish Border town of Gretna, famous for its miraculously unattractive and clinical depression-inducing annexe Gretna Green, which as you probably know in the old days attracted 16-year-old runaway lovers wishing for eternal nuptial felicity. The reason we were there was that Annie and I in 2003 had driven teenage daughter Ione to a dance just inside Scotland, and instead of returning 15 miles to our North Cumbrian home, then back again, decided to carry on and have a night out somewhere nearby, and that somewhere had to have a quality Indian restaurant. We duly ate a tolerable enough set meal for 2 in the Gretna Green curry house where remarkably one of the starters was called Spicy Boti, and then we went on to a huge pub which looked outwardly exciting but was terminally dull. An unexceptional and innocuous looking man of perhaps forty sitting alone at an adjacent table, suddenly introduced himself, and within half a minute I promise you was telling us about his Out of The Body peregrinations. It transpired that a few years back he was a jobbing farm labourer and was sat on a bunch of haystacks on an open lorry when the vehicle suddenly braked, he was flung forward, only to hit his head on the stony ground, whereupon he entered the Other World minus his astral sheath. I will edit what he said about such an unworldly world, where he like Mary was at some distance above his body, but suffice to say our storyteller was very plodding, mechanical and pointlessly finicky in his exposition, and minus any narrative flair or editorial sense whatever when it came to evoking the excitement of finding oneself reft of all one’s customary phenomenological bearings. In short, he managed to make his Astral Projection Adventure about as exciting as a tax return, and at the first opportunity when he laboriously slipped off to the Gents, I whispered the hoarse injunction to Annie, Off We Fuck! And so indeed we did.

I know of only two fiction writers who have engaged wholeheartedly with such exotic paranormal phenomena. One is William Gerhardie (1895-1977) also known as the English Chekov, who wrote wonderfully funny and brilliantly nuanced novels concerning matters of the heart, but who also made an excursion into the florid and bizarre, and penned Resurrection (1934) which is a whimsical and unsatisfying romance about someone who regularly goes AWOL from his body, rather on the lines of it being a party game. The other writer is French and he is Jules Romains. the pen name of Louis Faragole (1885-1972) best known for his multi-volume Men of Goodwill but who also wrote The Body’s Rapture (translation 1933) and Tussles with Time (translated 1951). The latter is a novel about out of the body phenomena, and surely gets the prize for the worst translated title ever, co-winner that is alongside a rare English version of the much-translated Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry aka A Nest of Nobles which somewhere around 1890 was amazingly rendered  as A Nest of Hereditary Legislators

But to return again to digressions, or rather to digress to digressions. And while we’re at it, alternative technical terms you might conjure with for ‘gressing’ in ‘di’ manner, are divagations, meanderings, anastomosings, excursi, three of them being Latin-derived and one only from good old Classical Greek (‘stoma’ means ‘mouth; as I’m sure you know). There is, would you believe, an entirely digressive novel or rather a 100 page single sentence novella (related by a sex mad cobbler) which is called Dancing Lessons For the Advanced in Age (1964, translated 1995), and is devoted entirely to endless very entertaining and very funny, ricocheting and catapulting anecdotes. These digressions are  about people, especially attractive women that the cobbler has met, plus tall stories, meaning hilariously crazy tales that he has heard, and that cover an amiable time span from 1900 to 1948, which is when totalitarian communism arrived in the country in which it is set. The author is the Czech, Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) who as I regularly remark is one of my all-time literary heroes. Hrabal wrote fabular, comic, serendipity East European fictional entertainments, and even if you’ve never read any of his books, if you are aged 60 plus, there is a good chance you will have seen a film based on a short story that he wrote in the 1960s. The film is called Closely Observed Trains (1966) and was directed by his pal Jiri Menzel, and was made in the Prague Spring when the gentle Czech president Alexander Dubcek was trying to liberalise and democratise state communism, until 2 years later in August 1968 the hideous Soviet tanks rolled in, a man called Jan Palach immolated himself in protest, and that for the time being was that.

Of the numerous memorable things in Closely Observed Trains which is set in the 1940s in a tiny country railway station in a small and vulnerable nation occupied by the  Nazis (inter alia, a new and young and bashful employee attempting suicide via slit wrists in a hotel bathroom when he cannot perform sexually…and the old station master being such a crazy pigeon lover that the birds use him as a landing post, and at one stage completely obliterate him on film) there is the one scene that everyone remembers, as it is both supremely erotic and supremely farcical. The failed suicide’s fraternal mentor who incidentally ingeniously cures the young man’s impotence problems, is a railway clerical worker who sports round and rimless glasses, and who always wears a smirk, and who thinks about absolutely nothing but sex. He is enamoured of a handsome and infinitely playful female colleague who is also a clerical worker, and they share the same small highly-charged office. She flirts with him and teases him to distraction until one day when the pair of them are alone, he chases her around the office threatening to spank her for her pains. He catches her, upends her right enough, and pulls her knickers down, but instead of condign chastisement he picks up the station stamp, its ‘logo’ in modern usage, and stamps that logo more or less indelibly on her succulent backside. Later her outraged Mum discovers this souvenir memento on her daughter’s behind, whereupon she creates havoc with the railway authorities and tries to have the speccy Lothario sacked forthwith.

Hence as we contemplate the cinematic, theatrical and thematic charisma of a tantalising female bottom, with an official administrative address on it no less, by a digressive route we are back to the Gretna tandoori place and its innocent menu that boasts of a ‘Spicy Boti’ starter. Everything that goes around comes around is what I’m saying, and those who like their stories strictly linear and sequential in my view, really are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to the eternal perspective.

Postscript

One other novel that deals significantly with Out of the Body phenomena is a minor one by Aldous Huxley called Time Must Have A Stop (1944). Sebastian, a 17-year-old English poet, has a hedonistic Uncle Eustace,  who he is invited to stay with in Florence, and one night after a surfeit of  rich food, fine brandy and cigars, Eustace dies of an overdue heart attack. Not only does Huxley describe his initial extracorporeal experience, he gives a detailed account of the uncle’s spiritual journey to the Other World, which reads to me very much as if lifted straight from the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead. Huxley of course was famous for his fascination with the great religious traditions, and his book of spiritual quotations The Perennial Philosophy is excellent at showing the common ground of all the great religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. However, and for all his massive intelligence, his tendency to easy conflation, led ultimately to his equating spiritual and psychedelic drug experiences, for which in the end I believe he was justly ridiculed.

 

 

LAST TANGO IN PARIS AND MISOGYNY

The next post will be on or before Friday November 9th

LAST TANGO IN PARIS AND MISOGYNY

Did you know that the eminent movie star Marlon Brando (1924-2004) never memorised his lines, but always had cue cards scattered all over the film set? In the massively controversial 1972 Last Tango in Paris where he played Paul the bereaved American hotel owner, Brando even asked the director Bertolucci if he could have some of his lines written on co-star Maria Schneider’s naked backside, which Bertolucci stoutly refused. Schneider was only 19 when the film was made and Brando was 48, and principally because of the notorious anal rape scene in the film, Schneider (1952-2011) years later went public that it had ‘ruined her life’ and that Bertolucci (born 1941) was ‘a gangster and a pimp’. Likewise, Brando and the director fell out and didn’t speak to each other for 15 years after the film was made. The film was an Italian-French co-production and was duly prosecuted for obscenity in Italy, and the director and producer (Alberto Grimaldi) were given suspended prison sentences in 1976, and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed. They were accused of ‘gratuitous pansexualism’ a phrase which sounds oddly innocuous and even a commendation to me. And just to summarise the international response, it was banned for 30 years inside the mass murderer Pinochet’s Chile and immediately unbanned in 1974 when the Fascist Portuguese government was overthrown. Censorious Mary Whitehouse of the UK Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association as you would imagine roundly hated it, and quite bizarrely puritanical Nova Scotia was the only state in Canada to proscribe it.

Paul (Marlon Brando) who is 45 in the film is seen wandering dazed through Paris in an immaculate camel hair coat, his French wife the hotel owner Rosa having just slashed her wrists and bled to death.  A young woman Jeanne (Maria Schneider) who is a fashionably dressed 20-year-old actress with an ostentatious hat, walks hurriedly past him and stares bemused at his condition. A few hours later she is on her way to look at a flat, and by a fluke it has already been taken by Paul who had had to get out of his wife’s hotel to retain his sanity.   The black concierge is confused about everything when Jeanne arrives, and because of a shift change doesn’t even know that Paul has taken the flat. She frightens the young actress by clinging onto her hand and cackling insanely after giving her the duplicate keys, a cameo that establishes the mood for what is to follow. Paul is there lying on his back in the semi dark inside the furnitureless flat when Jeanne chances upon him and is duly shocked. He is an extremely handsome American who was once a boxer and has led a vagabond life, ending up in Tahiti where learning French, he then transferred to Paris and married moneyed Rosa. His wife ran a kind of flophouse/ brothel hotel and it was there that the couple lived and where she committed her suicide. However, Rosa was far from faithful and had a long and undisguised affair with Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti, 1918-2003) who lived in a room directly above them, and where Rosa weirdly provided her lover with identical furnishings, fittings and everything else including personal gifts, that she had given to husband Paul. In a key scene Paul goes up to talk to Marcel to talk about their joint lover and the fastidious rival asks if he can keep on working as they talk. He makes an income snipping out newspaper articles for a press cutting agency, then pasting them into an album and Paul is suitably scornful of such an unmanly pastime.

The film works by switching back and forwards between the mordant and intense present which is Paul with Jeanne in the new flat, and the melancholy past which is Paul trying to make sense of Rosa’s tragedy and all that followed, mostly as witnessed in the flophouse hotel. Now in the bare apartment that Paul has taken, he and Jeanne are warily eyeing each other up. Friendly, attractive and very girlish looking, Jeanne wants to know his name, but he snarls at her and refuses all personal detail which he says pollutes and ruins everything and is quite unnecessary. This motif of a bare and spartan existential approach to life, familiar from the writings of Sartre and Camus, continues throughout the movie, and Jeanne is continually attracted and repelled by what can be both liberating yet infinitely bleak. Just as she is about to depart, now that the flat is no longer hers, Paul walks over, then grabs and embraces her roughly. Before long there is the famous copulatory scene where both of them are fully dressed, stood upright, and where Jeanne lifts her legs and clings onto his hips like an affectionate or possibly needy monkey. Parenthetically, if you are a connoisseur of famous cinematic sex scenes, you may be aware that it has only ever been outranked, or maybe I mean outflanked, by Jack Nicholson and Karen Black locked in coitus and furiously bouncing together across the floor where Karen is a kind of pogo stick and Jack the enthusiastic bouncer, the film in question being the excellent though sadly neglected Five Easy Pieces (1970).

After the coition, they roll apart still fully dressed and noisily gasping. However, Jeanne is in an additional turmoil, as she already has a fiancé Tom, a film maker played by veteran Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud (born 1944). The ironic contrast of loquacious Tom and his relationship with Jeanne is, sad to say, the weakest thing in Last Tango, for Tom is a chirpily anarchic film maker who never stops talking as he films absolutely everything that is happening in his life, including meeting his fiancee off the train and embracing her tenderly on the platform. Belatedly Jeanne realises what she thought was spontaneous affection is just part of his never-ending film creations and she is suitably angry. Tom bats it off in boyish faux Surrealist mode (my art is all that matters!) but that is precisely the problem. To use Tom and his ingenuous and breezy iconoclasm as foil against passionate, contemptuous and desperate Paul was surely a serious artistic mistake on Bertolucci’s part. Tom who takes up a large part of the film, comes across as something lost deep in the Swinging Sixties, indeed as someone on the lines of one of the Beatles racing around unhilariously in one of their unwatchable cinematic capers.

Meanwhile the passion is growing between the sad American and the Frenchwoman less than half his age. It is true to say about half of their romantic alliance is presented comically and playfully, the other half bleakly, a la film noir, and sometimes with undisguised masculine violence. At one stage during comical foreplay, they pretend to be the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood where paradoxically Jeanne is the wolf. As she pokes around Paul’s body he says his powerful arms are all the better to squeeze a fart out of her, and later when she is exploring his pubic hair, it is all the better to host her genital crabs. In their quiet bedroom interludes, she tries to tell him about her colonial colonel of a father stationed in Algeria, but he shouts at her to shut up and says he wants to know nothing of her past, nor even know her name, and the bizarre fact is that by the end of the film neither has a clue what the other one is called. He also breaks his own rules by talking emotionally about his rural midwest childhood with parents both drunks, his mother lovable and poetic for all that, but the father a bully and a whore chaser. The first time aged 16 Paul dated a girl and took her to a baseball game, his Dad had ordered him to milk the cows at once, and so he drove her to the game with his feet stinking humiliatingly of cow shit. Young Jeanne is then bold enough to accuse him of breaking his own rules about absolute anonymity, and he laughs and shows signs that his stony petrifaction after Rosa’s death is starting to thaw.

But then the controversial rape scene takes place, and it is worrying to learn that though both the director and Brando knew what was going to happen, Maria Schneider aged 19 did not. Seemingly the 2 eminent and experienced males thought they would get a better performance out of her if she didn’t know she was to be mock-raped, which if true was an appalling decision. Paul without preamble asks Jeanne to throw him a pack of butter, who makes nothing of such a weird request and chucks it at him indifferently. Then, while she is idly and innocently lying on her belly on the bed, he violently tears her pants down and rubs some butter up her back passage. In a trice he is violently penetrating her and she is sobbing hysterically at what according to Schneider she had never been forewarned of. Of course, the rape was simulated not real, but according to Schneider her sobs and horror were genuine and she was wholly traumatised. During the rape Paul pins her shoulders down and orders her to repeat verbatim a litany of loathing for the Nuclear Family, and it is worth pointing out the historical context here. The film was made only one year after the publication of the anti-psychiatrist David Cooper’s The Death of the Family, a raging polemic which calls for the destruction of the nuclear pair bond as the core and oppressive template of Monolithic Capitalism. Cooper was the best known disciple of another anti-psychiatrist RD Laing who penned Sanity, Madness and the Family, and doubtless avowed Marxist Bertolucci aged around 30 had imbibed some of these uncompromising texts and decided to make a mouthpiece for them in his anti-hero Paul.

Despite her puzzling commitment to babbling Tom, Jeanne eventually admits she is in love with Paul in a teasing wordplay reversal, which confuses even shrewd and world wise Paul. She keeps iterating she loves him, she loves him, she loves this special man, and seemingly she means fiancé Tom, but no she shouts it is Paul before her who is the only man she loves. This is cue for the other famous sex scene where just as he gruffly commanded her to get the butter, Brando now orders Jeanne to get some nail scissors. He then instructs her to clip only the two middle forefingers and next, guess what, stuff them up his backside and bring him to orgasm. Now then, dear reader, anal masturbation between consenting couples is not completely unknown on this planet, unless you live in Arkansas where it very likely used to be a felony (as it definitely did in the case of premarital sex). But the rest of the erotic tableau that follows is in my view utterly revolting and phony and devil may care nonsense, not to say profoundly misogynistic. The middle-aged American commands the very young Frenchwoman while she masturbates his arsehole, that she must imagine she in turn is being sodomised by a pig, and that she will inhale the dying farts of the said pig, and that when the dying pig vomits, that she must eat the vomit and that all this splendid unfailing obedience is a tribute to him the presumably divine or more likely demonic Paul.

Paul groans, “Would you do all that for me? Would you do all that for me?”

Exultant and innocent Jeanne, “Yes. Yes I would! I would do all of that. And I would do even more!”

On your bike, Bernardo Bertolucci, who here is trying to be a cross between a 1920s Surrealist of 1000% shock value e.g. Dali or Breton or Ernst (all of them arguably half mad males, not one a female you might notice) and/or a Tantra adept from the far reaches of the borderlands of East Bengal, and believe me no Tantric follower would be so puerilely revolting. It is all so male and masculine and ludicrously misogynistic and infantilised, is it not? By which I mean,  would cocksure Paul/ Marlon ever conceivably suffer himself to be sodomised by a pig, and then swallow its vomit all for the sake of teenage Jeanne/ Maria Schneider? Isn’t it because he is a leery middle aged self-aggrandising man, and she is a naive young kid, that he feels it OK to make her eat porcine puke should it come to the crunch, and when she has to prove her eternal fidelity to him the Supreme Deity in her life?

The only excuse for Bertolucci’s 4MF (Macho Man as Monster Masturbatory Fantasy) is that it immediately precedes what happens when Paul returns to the hotel he now owns, and where his dead wife’s body is laid out. She has been decorated with beautiful flowers and also given a great deal of camouflaging make up, presumably by her grieving mother, who Paul had previously screamed at when she demanded a church service and the ritual of Absolution (as a suicide) by a Catholic priest. Rosa was neither religious nor did she use make up, and when he first enters this funereal shrine, Paul starts to rage, rant and insult her, in almost identical terms to those demanding total perverse Obeisance/ Deification from Jeanne. He calls Rosa a fuck-pig, the venomous C word, and every filthy insult he can muster, and he tells her he hopes she rots in Hell (this from an aggressive atheist married to an atheist neither of who would have believed in The Other Place). At length he reaches a peak of deranged obscenity towards this treacherous woman who took the easy way out as far as he was concerned, and left him Paul stranded in this nightmare of a fallen world. Then, right enough the floodgates break, and he starts to sob and wail and thanks to Brando’s remarkable acting we realise that he really loved unfaithful Rosa after all, and that all that acidic bile preceded the declaration of his undying love.

After that, the singular dynamic between Paul and Jeanne switchbacks between her total adoration and an unconvincing resolve to leave him and marry Tom. Near the end of the film he chases her down the street, and as she insists it is finished, he puts to her a kind of Zen proposal that yes that is how things work, it finishes and then it starts again, something finishes and then begins again, the cosmic way of things. To divert her and to have his way, as by now he is patently in love with her, he leads Jeanne into an enormous ballroom which turns out to be hosting competitive tango, hence the title of the film. And for once we get some fine, artistic even farcical comedy for the tangoing couples as well as having men with Neanderthal haircuts complete with mile long sideburns, keep stopping dead like frozen mannikins and looking hilariously mad. Paul is in high spirits and orders champagne and then whisky for Jeanne who rapidly gets drunk. Jeanne persists in her rejection but eventually seems to succumb to her Deity, and is hoisted onto his back like a child and led onto the dance floor where the burlesque that follows is laugh out loud. First of all Brando lies on his back and kicks his feet like a baby, then ups and does a kind of crazy Daffy Duck stride with a mad protruding behind.  The two of them then parody the other dancers, with wild and rigid flings like a fairground whiplash. Before long the toothy lady in charge of the comp who has a remarkable hat and a dress sense from about 1910, storms onto the floor only to be lifted high by Paul and swept around the room as impromptu partner. Tiring of that he drops her, and heading for the door with Jeanne drops his trousers, moons at her and invites her to kiss his backside (the backside if you think about it, is more or less the actual and symbolic and overwhelming star of this film).

What follows now is painful to behold, for as she speeds off down the street telling him it is all over, he races after her protesting his love and determined to have her. Jeanne is pursued all the way to her widowed mother’s home, and we are chilled as we see she goes to a certain drawer where earlier we saw the mother brandishing her late husband’s pistol (which her stiff and bourgeois Mum had no idea how to use) as token domestic protection. As Paul steps up to her and protests his tender love, the gun either by accident or design goes off, and he staggers outside onto the balcony and with barely a word but a look of infinitely poignant and heartrending acceptance he drops dead. Jeanne meanwhile still inside with the gun, is rehearsing her words to the police, that she didn’t even know his name (which was true) and that he had followed her inside and attempted to rape her (which in a very specific sense, he already had).

You can draw your own conclusions about this worrying and very flawed masterpiece, and should certainly watch it again if you haven’t seen it for 20 or 30 or 40 years or more. The film is beautifully tender and brilliant at times, puerilely and obnoxiously misogynistic and violent at others, wildly funny now and again, and throughout there is a haunting string score, and as added bonus we have Gato Barbieri’s raw and sexy sax at the start, and with the credits. There are also terrific Francis Bacon paintings as ornamented titles alongside the pungent howling sax and those are not to be sneezed at either.

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 7th November

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

Anyone who has watched enough TV documentaries or  sultry atmospheric movies set in the US Deep South will be aware of the kind of intense devotional fervour witnessed in Black American  Pentecostal churches, the kind of place where the (usually male) preacher is right there with the congregation in the thick of it, not at a polite rhetorical distance as witnessed in White Anglican C of E where the dog collar alone is enough to mark our the long established demarcations. Because the gospel singing in these places is regularly of a high artistic order, normally cynical secular liberals will often give these devotees the benefit of the doubt, and generously refrain from autopilot derision. What characterises those black churches is that the worship is one of often feverish adoration, involving staccato and sustained repetition of key phrases like Praise The Lord, Say No To The Devil, I Full of Holy Ghost Power and so on. To put things in  a comprehensive spiritual context, a similar tradition of intoxicating repetitive chant in Classical Hinduism is called Bhakti or Devotion and has an honourable history going back to the great Bengali Vaishnavite prophet Chaitanya (1486-1534). The same thing was observable more entertainingly (for some) at its peak in the 1970s, in the joyous dancing and mantra repetition of the Hare Krishna devotees (white British as a rule and originally called perhaps Derek or Deirdre) outside of sundry Central London Tube stations.

At the start of the 1997 The Apostle, directed by and starring celebrity actor Robert Duvall (born 1931) as charismatic preacher Sonny, there is a flashback to 1939 when as a little white boy of about 4, he is brought into a Black Pentecostal church somewhere in rural Texas, his hand clutched by his stout old family servant. The sumptuously dressed black preacher has a gorgeous (and rather unlikely in 1939) perfectly tailored white suit. He is in the thick of his congregation and is dancing on the spot in his spiritual excitement as he roars out his devotion to the Lord in the form of saying the same brief imperative or assertion over and over again until he reaches a crescendo. Cue then many of the women worshippers falling into something close to a deep hypnotic trance as they repeat all he said, ever louder and ever more exultant. Convincingly then, by the age of 12, the boy Sonny (full name, and this is important, Euliss F Dewey) has already felt himself to be saved for Jesus and he becomes a roaring boy preacher whose very youth and innocence make him all the more charismatic and adorable to the surrounding congregation, most of them black, even in segregated 1940s Texas…

We now switch to the present day, the mid 90s, where Sonny aged about 60 is in something of a crisis. His wife Jessie, also a deeply religious woman is played by the late great Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) a gifted actress who here has an unconvincing and disappointing part for she patently is obliged to underact and has no significant speeches nor offers any focused dramatic power of note. What makes this film a flawed masterpiece is that essentially it is a one-man film, for it is the director Duvall who we are watching from start to finish, and it is almost as if he has forgotten to ensure the rest of the cast give all they have got. Meanwhile Jessie has successfully agitated within their church to have her husband removed from the governing committee on account of his bullying if genial tyranny and volatile character. For the same reason she has started an adulterous affair with a younger and very religious man called Horace (played by Todd Allen) though she assures angry Sonny there will be no problem with access to their young children. At one point, Sonny tries to intimidate her into reconciliation with an ugly feigned violence which he then disowns with his always charming chuckles. Very obviously this devout Pentecostal is capable of being a very unpleasant man. One minute he is tenderly hugging his children and jovially testing them with the sequence of the books in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job!) the next minute he turns up in his car at the Little League baseball game where they are playing, having taken a sly slug from a bottle of bourbon.  He is in an evil mood and grabs both Jessie and the kids and tries to drag them who knows where. The spectators try to stop it and Horace his rival comes and gently dissuades him, whereupon the man of God grabs a baseball bat and swipes him viciously across the skull. To everyone’s horror Horace collapses into a coma from which he never surfaces. Seemingly unrepentant Sonny flees the scene to inform a buddy called Joe (country singer Billy Joe Shaver, born 1939) of what he has done and adds that he gave him what he was due. Joe who Sonny had converted and rescued from the gutter, vows to keep him informed of what happens with Horace and the police, whereupon Sonny drives off in the pouring rain as a resolute fugitive.

Soon he is inspired to ditch the car in a deep river and thereafter he stumbles into a nearby wood where like something out of the Southern gothic of Flannery O’ Connor he bumps into an old one-legged black man who staggers about on crutches and is currently fishing for catfish using a hickory stick as a rod.  The old man accepts Sonny’s edited tale that he is obliged under the Lord’s guidance to seek out a new life, and lets him stay in his grandkids’ playtent outside his tumbling shack that is in the middle of the woods.  Sonny then grills him as to whether he knows of a famous black preacher called Brother Blackwell, and sure enough the angler directs him to a small town in Louisiana. After rebaptising himself as a new man, EF, in the river where the old man fishes, Sonny eventually arrives at Blackwell’s town by bus. There like the remarkably adaptable opportunist he is, he soon befriends a shy white mechanic called Sam (played by Walton Goggins, born 1971, best known for the TV series Justified) as he helps him to sort out a car engine that has Sam flummoxed. Part of Sonny’s magnetic charisma is that he is one of those men who can never be defeated, for he can turn his hand to anything, and from a window above, the manager of a Gospel radio station who also owns the garage shouts down and offers him work as a mechanic. Sam likewise offers the impressive stranger free lodgings in a spacious homestead left him by rich relatives. It is then time to seek out Brother Blackwell, played very ably by John Beasley (born 1943) familiar from the CSI TV series. Blackwell has retired from preaching and when Sonny asks him can he therefore take over his spiritual role and his vacated church, though friendly, the older man challenges him sharply:

“And why should I trust you? Coming out of nowhere like you are? Tell me that? Now I am going to be watching you for a while… and God is going to be watching you too.”

Sonny grins and fearlessly proves his mettle by taking on an extra job to fund the renovation of Blackwell’s old shack of a church, stuck out in the remote countryside. He begins evening shifts in a burger bar as well as being a mechanic during the day, and in his spare time and boundlessly energetic, he has Sam, Blackwell and numerous small children helping with the refurbishment (the kids hilariously do all the inside repainting in a holy white). Soon the church is ready and tireless Sonny even acquires and mends an old red bus which he uses to pick up the worshippers from distant farms. All the small congregation bar Sam are black countryfolk and include an overweight lady in her Sunday best, and her 2 little boys in natty suits both carrying miniature guitars which they cannot play. Once ensconced in his new church Sonny stomps into frenetic preaching in the form of repeating ever louder:

Holy Ghost Power, Holy Ghost Power, WE GOT HOLY GHOST POWER!

After ten minutes of which he has the women at the front going into rapturous trances, and Brother Blackwell suddenly looking at him with a proprietorial admiration. All would seem to be going to plan but the trouble with being a charismatic Pentecostal preacher, is that you can also forfeit commonsense and believe yourself to be invulnerable. Sonny then makes a serious error by deciding to broadcast on the Gospel radio station above the garage where he works. The portly bespectacled station manager is infinitely sympathetic, but shrewdly asks for money up front as air time has to be paid for, is not free. That means Sonny has to work all the harder to afford both the church and the radio access, and as a third and you might say more intelligibly human factor, all of a sudden potential romance steps into his fugitive existence when the beautiful radio station secretary, Tootsie, played by UK actress Miranda Richardson (born 1958) enters his life. There is a problem though, which she is separated not divorced from her husband, so that when Sonny wines and dines her on a Louisiana riverboat and later attempts to get her into bed, she gently refuses him. As a man of God, he ought to accept this patient restraint of course, but Sonny is human all too human, and again oddly unrepentant about his flaws and failures whether they be that of would be fornicator or first-degree murderer. The real import of the radio broadcasts though, in terms of cinematic power, is Duvall’s astonishing acting when he goes into full Pentecostal frenzy on air, so much so that the manager confides to him that all the listeners out there, unless they know otherwise, assume he must be black, he cannot possibly be a white preacher.

A strange and unsatisfactory set piece happens next, when a disgruntled young white man in a baseball cap enters one of Sonny’s services and demands to know who EF is and what this service is all about. The stranger is played by the hugely talented Coen Bros regular Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who here like Farrah Fawcett is not being pushed to his considerable limits. This nuisance rudely interrupts the service and after his interrogation, then refusing to join in the worship, he adds as a calm aside:

“I ain’t going to be in here among a load of niggers.”

When this disturbing pest refuses to go away, ever versatile Sonny takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and beats him up very effectively outside the church. The troublemaker then slopes off threatening appropriate vengeance, and when Sonny next hosts a church tea party to raise necessary funds, Billy Bob Thornton turns up with a bulldozer and threatens to demolish the church. Sonny, who let us not forget is an unrepentant murderer, urges him to desist, and then is inspired to lay an open Bible across his path. This stops the crazy man in his tracks, and when he gets down to remove the Bible, he suddenly goes into spiritual crisis, and lo and behold is on the spot converted by the man he hates, and who will not explain himself, namely EF. The trouble with this set piece is that there is nil background explanation as to why Billy Bob is as he is, and indeed he is listed in the credits merely as Troublemaker. Once again and as with Farrah Fawcett and even Miranda Richardson, Duvall is underusing these considerable talents while making massive demands on himself as the central unarguably towering character.

Nemesis comes when Jessie at home with her children in Texas picks up on her radio a stray Gospel station and hears the startling initials EF (as in Euliss F Dewey) and an appalling and all too familiar voice preaching at full throttle the indestructible Word. She alerts the Texas police and they notify their Louisiana colleagues, and soon a lone sheriff walks into the chapel shack and patiently waits for it to end before arresting EF for first degree murder. Sonny takes a good half hour to complete unfinished business including movingly bringing timid, weeping, white mechanic bachelor Sam to the Lord. He then with a spring in his step goes out and accepts the handcuffs and true to form guys and jokes with the sheriffs who humbly address him as sir. The end of the film has him leading a Texas chain gang in devotional chants and there is Sonny still smiling, perennially victorious, and also of course still infantilised and arguably half mad.

THE ISLAND CALLED SURREAL

The next post will be on or before Thursday 1st November

THE ISLAND CALLED SURREAL

Living on a small and obscure Greek island you would expect things to be considerably different, a mite more primitive and ad hoc compared to sophisticated Athens, and even more so than say genteel Canterbury UK and even legendarily cosmopolitan New York, USA. The choices you have when confronted by something that seems preposterous or outright crazy, or even blatantly cruel, are to either laugh or be angry or be sad, and most often you will find yourself juggling frustratingly with all three inadequate options.

Let’s start with the undeniably comical. There are 4 busy supermarkets here in the port and I will anonymise them as Corinth 1 and Corinth 2 and Patras and Sparti (no relation, I promise, of your beloved  local Spar). Sizeable Corinth 1 and the much smaller Corinth 2, are owned by the same family and are about a mile apart.  Corinth 1 supplies all the goods to be found in its satellite Corinth 2, meaning anything should be the same price in both shops. Alas, and if only it were thus. In Corinth 1, a tin of kidney beans costs 75 cents and in Corinth 2 the identical tin costs 1 euro 80 cents, i.e. well over twice as much. It has been like that for the last 5 years and no one including me has the nerve to point out the puzzling inconsistency, or maybe they don’t even notice it. As a vegetarian cook I ingeniously solve the problem simply by taking a rucksack and buying my kidney beans en masse from Corinth 1, a bracing 20 minute walk from where I live. Meanwhile in arguably dubious Corinth 2 a 250g pack of standard Lavazza coffee is 5.20 euros and of the decaffeinated kind 3.90, which more or less corresponds to the price differences everywhere in Greece aside from baffling island Supermarket Patras just up the road. There the standard quality coffee is also 5.20, but the decaf variant is, as in some nightmare should you be allergic to caffeine, outrageously expensive: 7.70 euros, or nearly twice as much as in Corinth 2. Note that all these prices are more or less crazy and extortionate in UK supermarket terms, but for anyone in the known universe to be asking £7 for a crumpled little pack of Italian decaf is surely absolutely, transcendentally nuts. For a start Greek wages are about 60% of UK wages, and even worse a dietician friend of mine informs me any decaf coffee, no matter how posh the brand name, is actually more hazardous than the standard kind on account of the brutish chemical process applied to remove the noxious caffeine.

Now let’s turn to dogs and their peculiar situation on this island. Take note I won’t be mentioning cats as I have adverted to them so many times on these pages, and also be aware that the number of dogs on the whole of the island, only one of them a pitiably homeless stray, amounts to a tiny fraction of the feline and invariably feral population. In the old days Greek animal welfare used to be non-existent, partly a function of the fact that within living memory (an appalling Fascist junta ruled the country 1967-1974) Greece was a conspicuously poor nation. More than 40 years on, out in the countryside it is still the frequent and obnoxious practice that when a dog is no longer a pup, it is turned into a farmer’s guard dog and will be tied up with a barrel for its permanent home. It will never be released nor given exercise in its lifetime, and the only attention it will get will be its daily food and the occasional removal of its excrement. And here we need to point out the obvious, namely that old-fashioned Greeks and especially dyed in the wool rural smallholders, simply cannot imagine what it is like to be an animal, indeed it would be regarded as an idiocy to do so, nor that to be chained to a barrel for eternity is any kind of torment as such. So it is that when people live historically hard lives, they are not usually tender about the feelings of working animals, much less feral cats or feral dogs. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that miracles can happen, and things can change beyond belief, and I was fascinated last year to talk to a German lady who has lived in Kypseli, Athens for many years. Kypseli is one of the poorer parts of the city and she said that in the 80s and 90s its inhabitants did not hide their severe dislike of ‘unhygienic’ dogs and resented any foreigner such as herself bringing one into its confines, even if they kept it on a lead and had trained it not to bark. But now, these days, behold Kypseli and especially its legendary Fokonos Tou Negri Square is unashamed Dog City and like my native West Cumbria, is steaming dog-daft. Now in 2018 its citizens proudly and adoringly parade their poodles, Alsatians, Great Danes, Borzois, spaniels,  and cross ply lolloping mutts (notable for their splendid mongrel hybrid vigour) day and night and nothing is more delightful than to see a pintsize Yorkshire terrier and a donkey sized Great Dane sporting together like Laurel and Hardy in blissful amity.

Now back to Kythnos. If you walk to the far end of the bay here in the port there are an extended bunch of 1970s white painted flats, all with flat roofs, most likely built in the Junta era. About a year ago a young local couple with 2 little boys and a baby girl acquired a beautiful young cross-bred pup and for the first few weeks lavished a very moving affection on it, including unheard of things like sedate walks on leads and even taking it off in their 4 wheel drive for real walks, for strenuous and hilarious exercise in far flung bays. Then as anyone might have predicted the novelty all too obviously wore off. So what did they do, meaning what executive decision did the parents, the responsible adults in this poignant scenario, take apropos something they had tired of? They could have had the dog put to sleep by the island vet as others might have, but instead they ingeniously decided to confine it up there on the flat roof which it clearly never ever leaves. It is not allowed in their house now that it is no longer a gorgeous pup, nor incredibly is it chained up for its own safety. Instead it is free to run to the perimeters of the very high roof, and from there it barks loudly at all the passers-by, though thankfully shows no signs of kamikaze leaping. The one saving grace of its bloody awful Simon Stylites existence, and it is no thanks to its deplorable owners, is that it is clearly not distressed by its aerial incarceration. If it were it would whine or howl but instead all it ever does is bark and race backwards and forwards with excitement at the approach of sundry strangers, very often oblivious yachtie tourists.

I think I am just possibly the only one in the port who notices this crazy top floor banishment and is at all upset by it. If anyone did this in the UK half the surrounding population would be ringing the RSPCA and putting mugshots of the neglectful culprits on fb, so that the couple would panickingly race up there onto the Fascist Junta flat roof and retrieve the dog and stick it on a cushioned sofa in their best sitting room with a couple of brisola chops to gnash on, and the telly tuned to vintage episodes of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, just to let the animal know it was in fact worthy of being genuinely loved and had not after all been born in vain.

ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 24th October

ARE YOU FUSSY ABOUT WORDS?

Nazi sympathiser and ferocious anti-semite, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (1894-1961) author of the remarkable Death on the Instalment Plan and Voyage to The End of the Night, was so scrupulous about his fiction writing that he used to hang every individual page on a washing line with pegs, so that he could scrutinise them better. Another French genius and far more sympathetic was the Provence writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) who declared that when it came to his novels he held up every single word to the light, as if he were examining a jewel and then gauging whether it were fit for purpose. If you think he was guilty of hyperbole I advise you to go away and read his autobiographical childhood novel Blue Boy (English translation 1948, reissued US North Point Press 1980) which in my view is the most beautiful not to say tender book ever written by anyone anywhere, and where the vividness and precision and stereoscopic richness of the prose are quite simply off the scale and unbelievable.

Giono believed in weighing every word, while I as a fiction writing teacher of 32 years, can assure you there are many would be writers who don’t even examine entire sentences minutely, nor even entire paragraphs, nor even entire chapters, and in the dizziest cases their entire novel or short story. They just plonk it all down as if it were papier mache or pizza dough, and they hope for the best. The commonest habit is to use ready-made phrasing, a sure indicator that they are not looking at their characters and seeing them with full clarity, because if they were their prose likewise would demonstrate clarity and precision. These things all hang together in a structural manner, because clarity or vividness of characterisation results in vividness of plot, vividness of descriptive writing, vividness of dialogue etc. Hence anyone who does formula characterisation, also does formula dialogue and formula plot, and there is no such thing as a writer who writes brilliant dialogue but has 2-dimensional characterisation.

Sometimes derivative phrasing goes hand in hand with ignorance of what a word actually means. In 1984 I founded and edited a fiction magazine called Panurge for 6 years (David Almond of Skellig fame edited it another 6 years). That meant I had to read literally thousands of unsolicited short stories (being highly ethical, as all my friends know, I refuse to solicit anything and especially possible genius in manuscript). You would not believe, dear reader, how many ambitious fiction writers out there love the word ‘disinterested’ and how few of them have a clue what it means. It does not mean ‘uninterested’ which is what they think, but it means behaving in an impartial manner and exercising no partisan interest nor seeking any personal reward. So if someone says ‘I want someone who will behave in a disinterested manner in this project’ they don’t mean they want them to be bored by it, they mean they want them to behave in a neutral manner without personal or partial motive. If you think this demonstrates finicky pedantry on my part, and that there’s a sporting chance the rest of the short story might demonstrate ability and even excellence, you would almost certainly be wrong. The same author when trying to evoke character might very likely a paragraph later say, e.g. that ‘William strode purposefully towards the door’. This is a good example of the delightful strategy of Rent an Adverb where the adverb , the ‘-ly’ word, drops on the page and deathlike coagulates and clots just like UHU glue (Yoohoo! Here I am and I’m a good old adverb!). ‘Purposefully’, when used by a skilful writer and with possibly other adjectival phrase elaboration can work on the page, but 9 times out of 10 with would be writers it is just slapped down on the page with a wishful thinking alacrity. Their character strides with a purpose, yes, but what sort of purpose, what kind of nuance are we talking about? And is it the case that William (Willy or Willum to his wife in bed in moments of high passion?) is always purposeful in what he does or just in this particular moment of time in Ted Warbelow’s 5000 word story Limbo in Leicester and note that Ted also lives in downtown Leicester.

Another regular unblushing hero in among the thousands of manuscripts I read between 1984 and 1996, was the 2-adjective phrase ‘a harsh metallic sound’. At least 3 times a week when I could be getting up to 60 stories in the same period, as sure as shot there would be a story where some plodding character usually in a stagnant present tense narrative (‘Joe walks purposefully down to the town centre’) would hear ‘a harsh, metallic sound’. Because the whole world of would be fiction writers was using it, the phrase by definition must be derivative cliché, but it is worth examining it in more detail to understand the depressing realities of authorial myopia. For a start I’m not sure I know what a metallic sound is but let’s suppose it is something like an iron bar being struck by another bit of metal. Would you say such a sound is truly harsh? Is it not possible that with all the different types of metal, both that which strikes and that which is struck, there are umpteen subtle yet describable possibilities of what the sound is like. Try as hard as I can I cannot see nor hear anything like harshness, which in any case is usually applied to humans as in a punitive parent or a judge, and not to inanimate objects.

Again, this is not me being finicky nor fastidious nor nit picking (all of which three adjectives have slightly different nuances but Ted from Leicester doesn’t know as much and unless undergoing a salutary existential transformation one day, never will). Those who write harsh metallic sound, might also describe one of their characters as a ‘typical suave middle-aged businessman’. A quick analysis soon reveals that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ businessman (compare and contrast Sir Richard Branson and Sir Horace Parse-Suffix who is very big in equities if not equalities. Not that Rich is big on democracy either). Suave? OK, suave, but in what way? Suave could be anything from wearing a natty bow tie costing £4.99, to a pair of designer jeans with deliberate holes in them acquired from Harvey Nix in Leeds for £500…

And then best of all, middle-aged. These days in 2018 you are not even remotely middle-aged till you are 55 and you cease to be so somewhere around 70 and even then, you are not ‘old’ given the myriad number of 70 plus folk on internet dating sites and who without demur queue for up to 20 hours to purchase the latest Apple phone. Precision, vividness is what is needed when describing either a businessman or a tramp or a raving lunatic, and the reason for that is that ‘vivid’ is from the Latin ‘vivo’, meaning ‘I live’…

If you write vividly you put life into your pages, your characters, your plot, your art. And if you don’t, and you can’t, and your prose is generally more like candy floss or polyfilla or something set-in-aspic, then apropos all that wasted effort, and for your own sake as much as the rest of the world, you might ask yourself why it is you are bothering?

IF YOU HAVE THE AUTUMN BLUES

I am going to be very busy till the end of the month, and the next post will be on or before Tuesday 30th October

IF YOU HAVE THE AUTUMN BLUES…

Instant Liberation For Any Downtrodden Woman

If you are a woman worn down by too many marital problems, take a very useful lesson from the Hebrideans of Tiree, Uist, Lewis etc most of whom still speak Scottish Gaelic in 2018, for they have learnt the valuable self-protective art of the distant and the impersonal. Be aware that in that sonorous and venerable language, they don’t say anything as straightforward as ‘I am a teacher’ but they say instead ‘There is a teacher within me!’  (Se tidsear a tha annam).

So, the next time your unpleasant, overweight and puffy-eyed slob of a husband or partner bawls, ‘You are a bone idle, selfish woman and a terrible housekeeper who never gets off her lazy backside’ just you go Gaelic and shoot back with infinite scathing irony at him:

“Yes, there is a bone idle, selfish woman and terrible housekeeper who never gets off her lazy backside, and who is within me!”

At once you are absolved of all spurious responsibility for the ludicrous demon that is there inside you, according to the deluded Milord Hubby. When your oppressor opens his mouth in mute amazement, make sure you have ready a large carrot or prize leek and ram it hard in his capacious gob and keep him thus at his deservedly helpless, hopeless level

A Holiday That is An Orgy

An old US friend of mine is notorious for writing emails that she shoots off without checking for typos, sometimes with hilarious and/or baffling results. Her best yet, and it had me laughing all day, was her reference to a recent US pubic holiday. At once my imagination stirred and filled in the gaps and painted oh so vivid a picture. Yours too, eh? Bring it on, eh! Let’s a have ‘a pubic holiday’ ASAP! Yes, yes, I’m for it, put me down for it without delay. You too? No? I don’t believe you. I think you’re more than ready for a pubic holiday, given that awful anti-social, unspeakable guy you’ve been with, Lord knows why, for 17 years, the one who drives you round the bend with his finicky ifs and buts and can effortlessly go silent on you for a fortnight if you’ve gone and burnt his breakfast toast…

Good old murderers

Ari, aged 55, who works in the Fermina taverna is from Gabrovo, Bulgaria, has 2 grown kids and 2 grandkids, and is married to a Greek woman who also works in the Fermina. He is famed for his dry wit and by way of debate and to get him going, I sometimes mention the only Bulgarian politician I know Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) the one-time authoritarian communist president. Not just Ari but all the Bulgarians here in the port say with such profound nostalgia what a great time it was pre-1989 under arthritic tyrannical communism, for however bad it was, they add, everyone had a job, and now they could do with going back to those halcyon times, for the place is such an anarchic mess these days.  I always argue the toss, but it makes no difference and they look upon me sympathetically as a pampered old Brit living inexplicably in down at heel Greece who knows nothing whatever of extreme corruption and extreme poverty.

One day suddenly I spontaneously improvised, and after saying ‘Zhivkov’ to Ari added, ‘Stalin’, as if to indicate the calibre of the bloodless rogue who Ari amiably venerated.

What Ari said then took my breath away. For apropos Josef Stalin aka Josev Dlugashvili, he said:

Kalo pedhi!

 Great lad! Great boy!

It was as if he was talking about his favourite uncle and it was like a Zen awakening, a paradox beyond imagining. He was joking about the worst mass murderer in all of human history, who made the atrocious genocides of Adolf Hitler look like minute beer indeed. I immediately started to laugh hilariously along with the straight-faced humourist because if course it was the only proper response, this mordant aching wretched gallows humour in the face of the impossible and the unbearable and of an evil so great it went off the scale and kept on going.