The next post will be on or before Thursday October 11th


I have now been on Facebook for 5 months and it has been a hell of an education. Like all of the recent significant and decidedly positive changes in my life, it was not my own initiative, but that of my daughter Ione aged 29, an automation test engineer currently living in Leeds, UK. It was her intelligent inspiration that put me on a dating site 4 years ago, in order to sort out my widower’s serendipity love life; she who in 2014 got me to start writing again after a 5-year block, by urging me to start up the blog you’re currently reading; she who got me a smartphone which came some 4 months after my hesitant appearance on Facebook. For it is a fact that at first I obstinately resisted every one of Ione’s ground-breaking suggestions, while now I am infinitely grateful she pushed me in the radically convergent directions that she did…

Put your hands up if you know what single thing is the lifeblood and ineffable heartbeat of fb? Yes, that’s right, the photograph, invariably taken by that other indispensable accessory and smirking twin sibling of fb, the smartphone. Take away all the photographs from every fb post that have ever existed and you have absolutely nothing left, literally nothing to write home or abroad about. These photos range from tenderly captured evening sunsets in e.g. the UK Lake District, Montenegro, Ulan Bator, Ipswich, Ramsbottom, the Haugh of Urr, or in my case, Kythnos, which inevitably receive umpteen loyal Likes, to that charming phenomenon of the Updated Profile Photo of conscientious fb aficionados, some of whom change their profile at least once a week. I note to my surprise that both genders in their late 60s and older, who you think in their latter years might have learnt a few salutary lessons when it comes to personal modesty, often take very seriously this presentation of themselves, and see it as virtually a matter of life and death. Almost every day in the Newsfeeds you will see a smiling woman of say 69, with a new and stylish haircut and possibly her old black cat Walter on her shoulder or half obscuring her handsome face, as the new and vital and regenerated avatar of Liz or Sall or Ros. A more comical variant is when some of the Kythnos Albanian lads in their early 20s, friends of mine who work as waiters in the cafes here, regularly put up posts that are exclusively new and flattering mugshots of themselves, and absolutely nothing else. Fb for them is a vehicle for showing themselves as dazzlingly handsome heroes, new Skanderbegs or in the Greek context pallikaris (noble warriors) and I can’t imagine any one of these young men even vaguely feeling that what they are doing is just possibly an unedited expression of personal vanity. They are more like 6-year-old kids saying, Aren’t I beautiful Mummy? and no mother nor indeed anyone else, is likely to tick them off for their artless boasting.

Because photos and instant visual impressions prevail, that means the written word is always subsidiary to the visual and invariably trailing far behind, often half embarrassed. Much of the time people are putting up what used to be called family photo albums and a great many mothers stick up pics of their adorable toddlers, guaranteed to generate an avalanche of likes from all and sundry. Equally you get young couples showing themselves in tanned and sunny happiness on foreign holidays, the only problem being that possibly a few months later they will not be couples and their status ‘Ginnie White is in a relationship with Tommy Brown’ has had to have the latter erased in favour of Dickie Black. There is always an alternative to just Liking any post, which is to add a Comment and it surprised me at first how rare any considered comments are compared to Likes or Smiley Face emojis. When people do comment they are often patently unsure of themselves and write a la pub shorthand conversation on the lines of ‘lovely darling’, ‘so fab’, or the textspeak of ‘you luk great luv’ etc. I would very much emphasise that none of this process is to be despised, for the simple reason that fb is not about highlighting the exceptional and the exclusive among us, those who have had all the spotlight and the lavish blandishments hitherto. Where fb excels and I am not being cynical but wholly approving here, is that it gives a new and radical dignity to ordinary folk who are not particularly literate nor well read nor opinionated nor even moderately confident about their ideas, but just ordinary people who want to show you a friendly photo  of their lovably barmy husband or their crazy dog or their gorgeous baby or the hideous flood outside their house after all the pissing rain.

What it amounts to is that fb does not as a rule celebrate the exceptional and the fascinating, but it makes everyone equal and everyone on the same level and it celebrates the very ordinariness and universality of the fb community. One radical, and wholly admirable consequence of this is that for the first time in human history pre and post the internet, arguably dull people living predictable and mundane lives and with nothing much to brag about, suddenly do have something to brag about. As long as they have a smartphone and a fb account they can slap up an amusing pic of some disastrous upside-down cake they made last night, or of their doughty, wizened and moustachioed aunty who is 92  today and has most of her own teeth, or their Alsatian dog licking their tabby cat or the tabby licking the German shepherd and as like as not they will be torrentially flooded with Likes and so can walk around with a spring in their step, whereas 30 years ago isolated and afraid they might well have been on Valium or Librium for their nerves  and afraid to step outside the house.

One wholly admirable exception to this celebration of the ordinary is the regular fb posting, usually by angry women of all ages and generations, of polemical or satirical matter aimed at the predictable beyond parody targets and necessarily structured as a striking photo plus cogent bullet points. The targets range from the buffoonish (e.g. UK politician Boris Johnson) to the virtuoso odious in the form of Harvey Weinstein or his long lost cousin Donald Trump. Oddly and unlike Twitter very few of these posts give any links to a longer and more rounded elaboration of the polemic, and I still have no idea why that is.

One thing Ione wisely advised me about early on was never to write too much on fb. As she put it concisely, if with any post you write more than 3 sentences, people simply won’t read it, whether or not it is accompanied by a haunting photo. For a writer like me who pens a blog like this which par excellence believes in discursive prose trying to expound at length my honest and precise musings about people, places, ideas emotions, politics, film, books, TV, the spiritual life, stage ventriloquists (yes, there is an archive post about that) to be obliged to write no more than 3 sentences is a severe and at times surreal discipline. Meanwhile for reasons I don’t understand, even though Ione has explained it several times, I actually have two fb pages, one John Murray Author and one just John Murray. The latter is where I get into gear and tend to put a photo series with brief accompanying text every day, successively me plus a Kythnos character, later Hideaway Greek Islands (including tiny places you’ve never heard of like Arki in the Dodecanese or Othoni in the Dhiapondia isles) and currently Kythnos characters conspicuously minus me. The first and the last are well liked by a variety of Kythnos Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians. Alas the Hideaway Greek islands which I think more interesting than anything else, get only specialist interest, mostly from my British friends. I think the truth is that ordinary Greeks despite their fetish for eesikhia = ineffable rustic serenity peculiar to Greek islands, aren’t especially fascinated by somewhere with a population of 40 and only 2 tavernas cum shops with a very limited supply of goods and foodstuffs, and dammit on top of all that no bloody wifi = no bloody Facebook.

Finally to explain the genially scatological title of the present post. Ione as I recall went on fb in 2009 when she was in her last year as a politics student at Leeds University. I knew very little about Facebook then and true to form took the jovial paternal piss and immediately dubbed it Arsebook, something which my daughter found most hilarious.  Ever since she regularly calls it that herself, and apropos her own tolerant ridicule of the universal monolith that is fb, has often stated that she wastes too much time on it. Meanwhile as I do not have wifi in my house but only in the Kythnos café where I work each day from 8.00 to 16.00, up until recently I was spared 24/7 addiction to Facebook (and while we are at it to Gmail). Then my loving daughter, always alert and alive to my deficiencies, bought me a smartphone and brought it with her when she came here with her partner and 2 friends last month. It is a smartphone that has roaming data, meaning I can now if I wish inspect fb and my emails at my hysterical, indeed disbelieving leisure, at 1.20 and 3.25am. The result is I am like everyone else now, checking my phone like a lunatic, as if in search of the Elixir of Life whereas really all I want to know is if I have any more Likes. As for the sarcastic inversion of smartphone to fart’s moan, Ione found this equally hilarious. We both after discussion decided that a human fart could sometimes sound like a plaintive sort of moan, especially if it were that of a polite and embarrassed young woman.



The next post will be on or before Wednesday, 10th September


Neighbours can be wonderful, and of course can also be a nightmare, as evidenced from those lurid Channel 4 TV documentaries, or from that other frequently lurid phenomenon, interestingly and debatably designated as Real Life. If you are older than 30 and have never had trouble with neighbours, in the form of regular small irritations, all the way to the verge of a nervous breakdown, you are a lucky individual and a rara avis. Much of it can boil down to simple and obdurate geometry, and one predictable consequence of living in an overpriced and possibly seedy city bedsit with other cramped bedsits along 4 axes (above, below, to the left and to the right) is that you stand to get 4 music systems at full volume making you wish you were constitutionally deaf rather than being driven in that direction slowly but surely by your neighbours. One such gent back in 1982 in a grubby part of East Oxford, a single and greasily amiable man of about 30, who did not work but lived on benefits and slept and smoked you know what much of the time, fancied himself as an electric guitarist with a wonderfully powerful amplifier to match. The presenting problem was that he only knew one tune, a standard of the time called Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits, and not to delude you that there are worse things than listening to S of S, I need to emphasise he only knew the first 2 chords, which he played over and over between 2pm when he crawled out of bed and up to the symmetrical if hallucinatory 2am.

We were on the 2nd floor of a large but shabby house on the Iffley Road, so that when a one bedroom basement flat became vacant down below, we immediately took it and assumed that with only one lot of neighbours, namely the couple dwelling above us in the body of the house itself, it would all become a piece of cake, and Annie would be able to concentrate on her social work essays  and I would be able to write my fiction. We were indeed quite fond of that couple Penny and Max, before we went subterranean below their backsides so to speak, and they were an unusual pair by any standards. Penny was young, attractive and fine featured, and could be no more than 22, whereas Max was a huge hulking man well over six foot tall, who looked like a forbidding all-in wrestler, probably raised in backstreet and inevitably criminal Dublin. He was 37 which meant a fair age gap, and as he was at least 18 inches taller than her, it looked as they walked down the street as if Max had his arm round his teenage daughter. He must, this frowning, sullen wrestler, have weighed at least 17 stones, so Annie and I occasionally fantasised what it must be like in their erotic throes, which odd to say we never heard even once.

In fact, Max was a fine artist, a painter, and had once been a considerable metropolitan celebrity, back around 1970 when he was 25 and at the height of his powers. He was also Grade A posh with a voice like a shrill public school master, so suffice to say he looked like the outsize cousin of Jackie Pallo (google him if you are under 60) but talked like a squeaky vicar who ministered gladly to venerable aristocrats and those alone. Max had gradually descended into total obscurity and the rougher end of the Iffley Road, partly because the booze had taken over as his talent had stagnated, though as even epic quantities of booze have never stopped a real and enduring talent from manifesting itself (qv Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Malcolm Lowry) the likeliest problem was lack of artistic stamina aka plugging on regardless. Significantly, when you saw him clutching his midget girlfriend as they walked down the street to the pub, Max looked nervous and uneasy and his first hellos to us were decidedly shy and tongue tied. The other weird thing about Max which might have been an indication of profound emotional regression, was that he used baby talk when referring to intimate parts of the body, which given that he was at one time an avant-garde painter seemed a strange quirk. For example, he referred with frequent moist relish to the human backside, both his own and Penny’s, as the ‘botty’, which coming from someone built like a ferocious brick shithouse and at least 6 foot 2 in his socks, was altogether bizarre…

The crisis came when we had been in the basement flat about 3 months and Max and Penny’s TV viewing habits had become ever more unbearable. Max was unemployed and Penny had a part time secretarial job, but outside of work neither she nor he read much, nor did anything as far as we could see, other than go to the pub and watch TV. Their TV was a very large rented one and it was sited directly above our head, and they had it on at stone deaf volume early evening which was more or less tolerable as long as we below were listening to records or watching out own 12 inch black and white portable TV. The problem was they sat there drinking wine all night as they goggled at the box, and come midnight and just as we were going to bed, the pair of them would regularly go unconscious with the TV blaring vauntingly and for its own benefit, though certainly not for ours.

I stood this for about a month until I could stand it no longer. What I should have done was spoken about it jokingly and matter of fact to Max during the day, although even if I had I doubt he would have changed his wine quotient or alternatively conscientiously remembered to flick off the telly as he felt he was nodding off (perhaps with a scrawled memo Bloody Well Turn This Wanker Off taped above the screen). Instead I dallied with my irritation, until it turned to anger and then to rage, and no one over the age of six should allow themselves to be governed by incendiary rage. What happened then was that at one in the morning and with Annie having to be up at 5am to go for social work practice in distant Wilts, the TV was cascading brutally and brainlessly above our ears, and I suddenly felt the anger of the effortfully just man who always considers others when it comes to importunate noise, while taking note that for about 70% of the human race it never even enters their  little heads (their charming logic goes, I love this splendid racket therefore everyone else must!). I shot out of bed, and with Annie dozily protesting, I opened the door of our flat and raced up to Max and Penny’s bedsit window, where I saw through a gap in the curtains they were fast asleep and drunk. I battered a vicious and terrible rat a tat tat on their window, just to let them know what it was like for us to be languishing underneath their drunken selfish arses. What I should have done of course, was to have bawled, turn that fucking telly down! but I didn’t even do that, I just smote an apocalyptic thunder on their windows and then ran back to the flat below, and locked the door behind me. My tactical silence meant that in theory he might never have guessed it was me, but a mere five seconds passed before I heard horrible heavy steps racing down and then another ferocious tattoo and the rage of Max the former artist celebrity outside out door.

“Open the door, you absolute fucker! Come on! Open fucking up!”

Bog-eyed Annie was out of bed by now, and apprised of this small hours drama, she implored, “No, don’t you dare! He will lose control and he’ll hurt you if you let him in. He’s probably piss drunk, and he’s about three times your size…”

Unfortunately Max overheard that sound, impartial wisdom, and it evidently increased his ire. He thundered again, another hideous rallentando on the door, and ranted:

“If you’re brave enough, you bastard, to batter on my window, and then to scurry off, you can be brave enough to open up this fucking door! Come on! Open fucking up!”

I was shitting myself at this quaint if nightmarish doppelganger of PC49, as I snorted, “You keep us awake every fucking night with your fucking telly! Annie has to be up at five a clock, in four hours, to go to Swindon to do some social work, and she can’t possibly sleep with that thing above blaring away night and day. Don’t you give a damn at all about someone who has a really important job to do?”

Max of course had no job himself, and was no longer able to be an artist, so was wholly unmoved as he repeated his sacred formula. That if I his downstairs neighbour was brave enough to batter on his bedsit window, ergo I was brave enough to confront my due Nemesis.

And so it went for another half dozen exchanges, before he disappeared, and we heard no more for the rest of the night, as we both lay awake feeling sick and in a state of shock. Annie made it bleary-eyed to Swindon on the early train, and for the next 6 months, and until we finally left Oxford, their TV never rose above a tolerable level in the small hours. But every time we saw Max and Penny in the street, all four of us averted our eyes, and it got to the stage that going in and out of the basement flat felt like a minor ordeal, not least because our assailants, the Monster and the Midget, were literally above our heads and one of them was mythologically enormous, a giant and at times a bad one, and our nerves began to twitch and ache to a painful rhythm, in the obsessive and remorseless they always do in these ridiculous circumstances.



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I’ve been bad!”

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


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

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


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


What I Did and Read in 2001

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

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

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

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

What I Read in 2001 (from my Reading Diary)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Light in August by William Faulkner

Soldier’s Pay by William Faulkner

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

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

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

Kaleidoscope Two by Stefan Zweig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Tales by Joseph Conrad

Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway

Nicolas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

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

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

Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (his 1980 memoir)

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

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

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

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

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

The Mansion by William Faulkner

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

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Autobiography of Isadora Duncan

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

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway

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

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

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

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

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

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





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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September


Life without friends is a sad affair and the poker-faced gag where you look around for a non-existent dance partner and call yourself Billy No Mates is not so much tongue in cheek as none of us want to be him or her on even a temporary basis, do we? Facebook to which the whole world is addicted (me included since May of this year when my daughter Ione put me on it) partly sells itself on the strength of all the Friends and Followers that anyone on fb has, though of course no one, not even relentless fb addicts, believes that those 300 or 3000 or 30,000 Friends are friends in the sense of really knowing, caring about, and understanding you the fresh-faced hero with this awesome social media charisma. I’m not being sarcastic when I say that I have a lot of time for Facebook as it is the only place in the world where you can get 217 likes for telling people the yolk of your breakfast egg this morning was a bit runny, and if you can supply a photo of the runny egg you might even get 500 likes. In the old days if you lived a boring and tiresome existence and had nothing to brag about you might well end up a genuine Billy No Mates, whereas these days, tedious and frustrating as your life might be, you can regularly be a minor celebrity for being just like everyone else…namely tickled by the sight of an unsavoury fried egg or a kitten playing with a bit of string, and the latter might even go viral and make you a pile of money.

When you are a kid, friends come and go in a sequence where you love them to the point of no return and are inseparable, then a few months later you barely recognise them in the street, and they seem more like a remote figure from history that a one-time doppelganger. If adults behaved like that they would be accused of being cold blooded sociopaths, but kids on the whole aren’t moralists, they just do what suits them, which is why kids on the whole aren’t neurotic, and a great many adults are. I had a lot of come and go friends inside and outside of school between the ages of 4 and 17, and then all of a sudden, a Best Friend came into my life, and in retrospect I have never had a better one since, even though at this point in time I haven’t seen him for 30 years. I fictionalised him in these pages in my online novel, Passion for Beginners (see the May 2016 archive) where I called him Marty, and the true history of the Best Friendship there must be one of the oddest ever told.

In 1968, Marty arrived in my Grammar School 6th Form from a nearby Technical School where he had achieved good O level grades but where they didn’t do A levels, hence the transfer. He looked wholly original and quite extraordinary which was part of his attraction, as he had a rampant bunch of tight curls and a moderately outsize nose which made him seem like a good-looking version of Gene Wilder crossed with Harpo Marx. Marty’s prime purpose in life was to be funny, to be a comedian, but he wasn’t a one-liner man as most of that sedately conformist Grammar School were, should they consider themselves comics. Marty was a flawless mimic with a perfect sense of timing and also an expert at anti-climax, of saying the infinitely banal with a deadly solemn and pious face. Both he and I were the offspring of working class West Cumbrians and out of forgotten prehistory he would come out with irreverent imitations of our grandparents, great uncles and great aunts, who when running out of conversation would suddenly gravely draw in their breath and exhale as magisterial commentary:

“Fffffff. Aye! Aaaaygh!”.

When Marty did that first parody, I hadn’t heard it for about a decade and I broke into ecstatic merriment and wondered why the whole of the universe wasn’t engaged in the same sidesplitting mimicry, the funniest thing in the world. Marty like me was an instinctive socialist, but also being an instinctive anarchist he wasn’t concerned to praise our old relatives and their frequently hard lives, though neither for that matter was he mocking them, he was simply representing them exactly and mercilessly as they were, for all of posterity.

Within the school the two of us were urgent reference points for each other, disdainful as we were of most of our peers who had their heads down for their A levels, and that was as far as their minds and ambitions progressed. Marty wasn’t an intellectual but he was interested that I was reading Lawrence Durrell and when aged 18 I told him about the troubled femme fatale Justine and exotic Egyptian Alexandria and Pursewarden the aphoristic author and his blind sister and their incestuous relationship, he was all attention. He went on to read Sociology at a northern polytechnic and he duly lectured me on all he knew concerning Max Weber and Emile Durkheim about whom I knew nothing but who had thoroughly seized his imagination. Turned 20, I had broken up with my teenage sweetheart, who Marty had no time for (and indeed he was borderline rude in her presence) and for the next couple of years we both flailed around looking for someone to settle down with and recoup some notional forgotten emotional paradise. A year later, in 1971, he met and eventually married a remote relative of mine, meaning if he had never known me he would never have met his wife, and they were together for about a decade before she went off with someone else.  It was to be another few years, 1978, before I met my wife Annie, who Marty definitely did respect, and some 7 years after that he was settled permanently with a Polish woman Basha and living in London. From a previous marriage she had a daughter called Pavla aged 12, and the three of them visited us up in West Cumbria and Pavla was the epitome of pubertal innocence, the sweetest possible kid you could ever meet. But then of course nothing is ever assured in this alarming world, and only two years later aged 14, Pavla was hanging around with Islington junkies and was shooting up and stealing money and driving her mother to despair. Basha’s panicky all-purpose solution was to move house within London and to tell no one in the world her new address and to instruct Marty to do the same.

I didn’t know any of this until years later, and so it was that when I rang my best friend’s London home in 1989 the phone was cut off, and I had no way of contacting him as far as I could see, meaning that it was down to him to contact me if we were to stay in touch. I kept waiting for Marty to ring me but he never did, which is to be sure unheard of behaviour from your closest friend. Then about 15 years after I had last seen him in the flesh, I bumped into an elderly woman in Carlisle who I immediately recognised as Marty’s stepmum and at once she gave me her husband’s number and advised me he was regularly in touch with Marty. That evening after chatting to his always friendly Dad, I successfully rang my best friend who incredibly had the gall to announce:

“I did wonder when you’d get in touch…”

Only then did I learn about Pavla’s drug addiction and Basha’s all purpose and arguably crazy solution of going underground to become incognito. We talked rapidly and happily enough for I had plenty to tell him, including the fact I had a daughter Ione now aged 14, that Annie had thankfully survived primary breast cancer, that both my folks had died in the early 90s. Marty by now had retired from his civil service job and with his severance money had bought a second house and was a rentier living off his rents and doing nothing more exhausting than going to the gym every day. Just before we rang off, he promised he would contact me very soon, but no, although he had our number he never did, and when I rang him a few weeks later the phone was dead and they must have moved yet again. So it is that I haven’t seen my closest ever friend for a full 30 years, and no I am not writing this to try and prove that best friends are a petty bourgeois and spurious illusion, but simply to share with you the sheer bizarreness whereby a great friend can just evaporate into thin air while still alive and kicking (as far as I know that is, for he was always a heavy smoker). What outstandingly defined our closeness for the 20 years we were in touch (1968-1988) was an instinctive and wordless sympathy for each other’s emotional states, particularly relevant in my case pre-Annie, meaning the mid and early 1970s. Once when I was suffering over an elusive and tormenting woman called Maria, Marty said shrewdly to me, she really isn’t worth it, not for what you are going through, because, though he barely knew her, he knew the lineaments of Maria’s soul which were indeed openly on display for anyone to know. He elaborated that she was cold and selfish and indifferent at her worst, which was true, but besotted as I was I didn’t wish to pay heed to the obvious, as I wanted primitive magic to rule the waves for me and Maria. As final rider and as binding proof of the extraordinary friendship we had, Marty and I hitchhiked twice through Europe together with a tent and a tight budget in the boiling summers of 1970 and 1971, and not once did we have the slightest friction or disagreement about anything, not even when Marty had a stomach bug and was vomiting musically outside a motorway café near Naples with two little nosy Italian boys gawping mercilessly at his display. That can only be termed miraculous and is something that even the most doting of couples might find impossible to emulate.

I have three other close friends who overlap to some extent with Marty, all male, and all of those friendships were made in our first year at university, for in those days Oxford college were in any case single sex. I am still friends with all three, though decades can go by where we never meet up, and the same was true before I opted to move to Greece. One is a musician, one is a photographer, and the third is a retired teacher. I met up with the teacher in Yorkshire in January of this year and we hadn’t seen each other since 1994, almost 24 years. In 1994 we were both in our early forties and the next time we met we were supposedly elderly men, fucking old pensioners as we put it to each other, both in our late sixties. Within minutes we were back to where we were and always had been regardless of geographical separation, fluent and hilarious with mad anecdotes, laughing and guffawing as easily as we did in college back in 1970, as two 20-year-old idiots, almost half a century ago…which emphatically proves that the passage of time is even more of a baseless ontological illusion than any difference in longitude and latitude.

With that trio of Oxford friends and from 1969 onwards, I could always speak my mind and vice versa, though I doubt whether we ever gave prescriptive advice when any of us were in a mess or a hole, despite the fact that possibly we fervently hoped for it and were disappointed when it did not arrive. Sometimes when I talk to women friends my age these days, they mention e.g. the awful time when their husband vanished with another woman, and their kids turned to drugs and worse, and they tell me about how their best friend, always female never male, came and helped them in terms of morale and in basic practical ways, so that they did not flail and sink and go under. They had them round for meals, babysat their younger kids or tried to, took them out to the boozer, tried to get them fixed up with a new man and so on. Best women friends might do those sane, pragmatic services for each other, but best male friends do not as a rule, other perhaps than successfully getting you drunk and watching you laugh volcanically, then sob hysterically when you are in a genuine abyss as opposed to a bit of a hole.

From my late forties onwards, and while living in rural North East Cumbria, aside from my wife Annie, my best friends were all women. There were 3 such women, only one married but her husband worked away half of the time, and the other two were single and with a history of problematic partners. Two of them were my age, both visual artists of a kind, and the third was nearly a decade younger and a musician, but what they all had in common was they talked about their private lives and inner lives, not in any overwrought, overdramatised, and glibly confessional way, but simply, clearly, understatedly and honestly. Any men my age in that same rural area, whether professionals, highly educated, self-declared writers or artists or not, were like evasive children in comparison, inasmuch as you could have talked to any or all of them for a thousand years and you would have never have got anywhere near them, much less understood their inner worlds, assuming that they felt themselves to have any. By the time Annie died in late 2009 of secondary breast cancer, one of my artist women friends had also died of cancer, and the other two were caught up in severe dramas of their own and to put it simply they just weren’t available to counsel or support anyone else, they had more than enough on their own plates. So it was, that in many ways I had to cope with my bereavement on my own when it came to my closest friends, though my daughter Ione living variously in Leeds and Poland did all she could to support me in our awful loss for the next few years.

The net result is that when I emigrated to Kythnos, Greece in September 2013, I left behind any and all close friends, and instead opted to have a great many very friendly very likeable Greek island acquaintances. As the only full-time foreigner on the island and as one of the few foreigners on Kythnos to have visited Albania, I am well liked by both Greeks and the numerous Shiptars here. Like some sort of mascot, the Brit who has spent all 5 Christmases on Kythnos and shows no signs of cabin fever, I can walk down the street and be greeted a dozen times by a dozen friendly folk. None of them are close nor best friends, obviously enough, but in the first and last analysis it really doesn’t matter a damn. I am still looking for a loving partner, needless to add, but that aside, ordinary Kythnos folk and the nearly always warm weather, are enough to nourish me with what I need, and best friends are optionally and for the time being a thing of the past. The world is a lot more complicated than people like to think, and you can do all sorts if you have to, and sometimes what you have to do is better than what you would wish to be your heartfelt choice.

MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September

MANDY’S SECRET WORLD – a short story

My wife Rona said of Mandy Brown and the men in her life, that she was a bad picker, which you might say was an altogether homely, anecdotal way of putting things. Rona was a gifted therapist who had practised for over twenty years, so was used to more subtle formulations (projection, introjection, splitting and so on) which arguably saw the person concerned as a victim of protracted psychological process. But to suggest that Mandy often made bad choices in her love life, inevitably put the responsibility squarely on her shoulders, not on inscrutable biographical accident. She did not say it to her face sure enough, but she went further in her no-nonsense approach and said to me and another friend as we ate dinner together, that she would have done well to go after Sam Anderson, a friendly and amusing neighbour of ours long without a partner. For, added Rona, Sam was not all that bad looking, and as bonus, and alliteratively, was sane and sound and solvent…in fact damn near rich with his massive barn conversion and his salary as a factory manager. At the time Mandy was pining painfully over the faithless Hamish after a recent debacle they had experienced together, in India of all places, and everyone wished to help her but of course everyone was too polite to tell her that Hamish really wasn’t worth the candle.

“What the hell does she see in him?” was the general restless murmur, as everyone for some reason felt instinctively protective towards Mandy Brown. “With all her talents and with all her commonsense when it comes to everything but him?”

I first met Mandy in the early 1990s on market day in a small town close to both the Scottish and Northumbrian borders. I had lived in the area for 4 years and she for longer, but this was the first time I had set eyes upon her. We were introduced by Patty, a friend of Rona’s who talked more than anyone I have ever heard in my life, as if even a moment’s silence would have made her ill or caused the world to fall apart. I was struck by Mandy as she was one of those people who look like absolutely no one else in the world, not even remotely. She had small eyes, small features, a small face and was thin and shy looking. But her eyes had some quaint oriental cast, and her cheekbones were assertive and finely expressive. Her hair impressed me too for it was shaped like theatre wings at either end and was neatly fringed. I thought she was beautiful in her own unique way, and it was only years later I realised that possibly I was the only person who thought as much. Others termed her plain and she herself thought nothing of her looks. The other thing I have to stress is she gave off the subtle aura of some small and delicate animal such as a timid squirrel or a careful dormouse (I put that gingerly at the end of this cameo, so that you aren’t led off on false trails with the like of Beatrix Potter, who was after all of the same geographical region we are talking).

Mandy was then in her early thirties and had been divorced from a Frenchman called Tom Pasquier for three years. Tom was a lecturer in French language and literature at a university near Newcastle and his English was so flawless several people assumed he was a well-spoken native until Mandy informed them otherwise. Tom was tall and handsome, but often looked impenetrable and aloof, though he was a conscientious father to their two small children, and drove the fifty miles to Mandy’s cottage every weekend to pick them up and then return them on the Sunday night. After the divorce she and he rubbed together after a fashion, though he was finicky about petty amounts of money and also had a Gallic fastidiousness and fussiness about all sorts of improbable things (the ideal salad dressing, the ideal paper clip, handy tips re remote recordings done by video machine) which irritated Mandy despite her best efforts. She had had no partner since Tom, but had a busy job as manager of a Resource Centre which provided subsidised printing, photocopying and computer lessons to the rural community. She was also a keen and accomplished amateur artist specialising in rugged often melancholy North Pennine landscape, and at weekends she tended the gently rambling garden of her tiny rustic cottage, or went in for strenuous cycling and hiking with various women friends. During the week I saw a good deal of her for I discovered it was cheaper to print off at the Resource Centre what I had written the day before, than it was to empty my ink jet every week or so. I arrived as the Centre opened and after I had done the printing would usually stop and chat with Mandy and can say with sincerity and wonderment they were some of the most significant conversations I have ever had in my life.

It is hard to say exactly why this was so, but the thing to stress is that despite her shyness Mandy held up almost nil barriers nor strategic defences when it came to genuine as opposed to token communication. She was one of those people you could tell your remotest thoughts to, and if you were to indulge in colourful metaphor or far flown comparisons or impossible comically exaggerated fantasy, or if you attempted to express the inexpressible which I often did in her company, she did not bat an eyelid, neither outwardly nor inwardly. Indeed, I have only ever known two people like this in all my life, my wife Rona and Mandy Brown, and a further reflection is that I have always had far more sensitive women friends to whom I can open my heart, than I have any male counterparts. Up in the remote northern provinces the case with men gets far worse than it would in say London or Cambridge, and though there are to be sure likeable individuals up there I have as friends of a kind, if I spent a hundred years in closed conversation with them, I would still have not the faintest inkling of their inner world. Mandy and I were both addicted to cinema, and as she had travelled widely in South America and India and the Far East in her early twenties, we shared a passion for foreign movies. Many a time we would agree in advance to watch the same subtitled film on TV (necessarily remotely recorded in 1993, if only because Channel 4 always chose to put them on at 3am) and then the next day discuss what we thought about it. Mandy had a literature degree and a sharp analytic mind, whose only fault was it was never quite assertive enough. When she passed an opinion, no matter how acute it was, it was also somehow tentative and I could see she was mesmerised when I became eloquent about a complex character or an ambiguous plotline or a bit of unusual camerawork. I was no cineaste, but I was full of my unlearnt opinions and my own ideas and talking to Mandy I felt drawn on to push and dissect and formulate more than I would if I had been talking to anyone else. It was as if Mandy vicariously wanted me to go right to the end of the road and beyond, when it came to making any bold hypotheses or stating my own combative dogmas, and whenever the pair of us were talking movies there was a kind of rapture of support and confirmation, as we discovered our minds to be cooperatively together rather than in the competitive way usually favoured by two men arguing the toss about Bunuel or Fellini or the Coen Brothers.

Two or three years went by and Mandy Brown stayed patiently single, then to everyone’s surprise broke with polite precedent by suddenly stealing her best friend’s husband….

Which is of course to distort and sensationalise the truth, for Hamish McKay was not married to Georgina Wright though he did have a fetchingly bright-eyed little son by her called Billy, who at five was a best playmate of Mandy’s children Jenny and Des. It is far from probable that Mandy Brown did any guileful stealing i.e. that she was the wicked agent and the doer of the bad deed, and much more likely that Hamish with his track record of blatant if corny seduction techniques was the one to take the initiative. Georgina and he lived in another idyllic cottage about twenty minutes’ drive from Mandy, and Hamish had come and gone from the family home over Billy’s five years, unable to settle or commit as he preferred to put it. He had moreover a good excuse to be away a lot, as most of his jobs were short term contracts for community work projects involving those with learning difficulties or the physically disabled or the very old, and often these projects were a hundred miles away or even further flung. Georgina Wright came of moneyed family, had been privately educated and was a very gentle and hesitant woman wholly incapable of asserting herself or showing any mood or temper, much less rage. Doubtless she would have liked to scream her lungs out and pull Mandy’s hair from its roots when Hamish moved in with her, but she was one of those people, warmly encouraged by Hamish, who believed that anger of any kind was negative and destructive and to be avoided at all costs. She and Hamish both went in for regular meditation weekends which of course help to dissipate more than anger, and Georgina made some income as a jobbing gardener, a profession that allowed her perhaps not to meditate, but to daydream as much as she liked. Her customers occasionally compared notes and saw to their concerted surprise that she took an entire day to weed one square yard of border. It was immaculately weeded right enough, but at that rate would take at least six months to clean the garden entire.

Georgina was very handsome and Hamish was the opposite. The first thing to strike you was the size of his nose which was considerable, and then after that the quantity of freckles, the shock of boyish fair hair, and the ever present and seemingly innocent grin which was also excessively boyish. Chronology confirmed this, as he was twenty-nine to Georgina’s thirty-six and Mandy’s thirty-seven, scarcely a toy boy perhaps, had he not looked quite so much like a cross between a caulflower-nosed boxer and Just William as once portrayed long ago on BBC TV by a young Dennis Waterman. Hamish’s parents were Glaswegian but lived in exile in London so that Hamish had a strong Bermondsey accent and inevitably the metropolitan cadences, the carpet of freckles and the hefty snout made you think of a dubious car salesman rather than a principled community worker. Mandy told me he was very good at his various projects, for which he was usually badly paid, and I believed her, but assumed like several other compromised community workers I had known, he was split down the middle, selfless with the old and the weak and the vulnerable, but selfish and calculating, indeed merciless, with the sentient and sensitive, particularly those who were female and desirable to boot. His winning point for Mandy was that he was an outdoor fanatic like she was, and loved rough camping, cycling, hiking and arduous fellwalking. At weekends when Tom the Frenchman had Jenny and Des in Newcastle, the two of them would take a tent to the furthest reaches of the North Pennines, way beyond Nenthead and Garrigill, to the very end of the universe in fact, and both of them being on a budget would spoil themselves with nothing more glamorous than cheap red wine and handmade crisps.

After about a year, exhausted by running a sheltered housing scheme for the elderly demented, Hamish applied for and was offered the management of a project working with street kids in India, in Patna the capital of Bihar. Bihar is one of India’s poorest provinces, and the project was six months long and would be a challenge by any standards, as the street kids were mostly outcastes and Bihar has had more caste strife than most of the northern states. It worried Mandy that Hamish was far more excited about seeing India for the first time, than evidencing any anguish about leaving her for a full half year, but she swallowed her burgeoning unease and put on a brave face. They arranged that she should go out and stay with him in Patna for a fortnight half way through the project, and she packed up all her painting gear and took her expensive camera too. It was August when she went out, all fresh excitement and shy but intense passion, and Hamish had agreed to pick her up from the airport then take her to his Patna apartment. When they met, he and his freckles and his vast nose smirked as amiably as ever, but he seemed worryingly preoccupied and immediately she felt that she was getting in the way of something, and was thus superfluous, even an irritation. A cold fear gripped her in the stomach, for here she was possibly painfully on her own in Patna for the next two weeks, and indeed things did not improve once they reached his flat. He explained he was up to his eyes with the street kids project and so had called in Vinnie aka Vinita his thirty-year-old deputy who had some holiday and had volunteered to show Mandy round the city: all the Hindu temples as well as the Sikh gurudwara, the Golghara dome, the Bihar Museum, the botanical gardens, and the best rural landscapes for her painting. Vinnie was generous enough company and she took Mandy to some fine vegetarian restaurants where the food was delicious if stingingly hot, and that astringence somehow made her think of Hamish and his present behaviour.

“Hamish is a marvellous man,” exclaimed Vinnie with her shiningly excited eyes, as she offered Mandy succulent and novel vegetables such as lauki and tinda. “He gets on brilliantly with the street kids. They absolutely love him, Mandy. They see him as just like one of them, as a kind of grown up street kid if you know what I mean.”

At that point, Mandy told me, she had spluttered at the heat of the dhal, and was reminded not just of Hamish’s perennial youthfulness, but that of Georgina Wright’s newly acquired partner, Lester Perry. Lester aged thirty was a strikingly handsome friend or rather confederate of Hamish’s who was a self- employed sculptor and metalworker, and was the shyest and quietest man I have ever met. In fifteen years, I doubt I had heard him speak more than two sentences, and his blushing childlike timidity was such that my own daughter Dora aged six once asked me in all seriousness was Lester Perry really a man or just a little boy.

“Yes,” answered Mandy with a struggle. “Hamish was a playleader once in a very run-down part of Leeds, in the north of England. He was a legend, Vinnie, as all the kids there really loved him. He has a special knack. He has something that others don’t have, I suppose.”

And what exactly was that? Mandy usually only saw Hamish late at night when he was exhausted from a day on the Patna streets followed perhaps by a team meeting with the local workers. He was seemingly attentive and asked conscientiously about her adventures with Vinnie, but when she related them his eyes were busy elsewhere. Mandy was in any case getting tired of Vinnie’s repetitive table talk, for the Indian woman was crazy about HE Bates and over coffee or lunch liked to relate the plot of every single short story, every whoopsadaisy hilarity involving Pop Larkin she had read, so that Mandy found her coffee getting cold as she aped attention. In the end she was almost glad to go home, though on the plane back to Manchester she chastised herself wretchedly for her total incapacity to ask Hamish what on earth was wrong and what was going on inside his always smiling head and his elusive heart.

As it happened she never found out, for about a month after the project had finished and he was back in their cottage, the pair of them drank more wine than they usually did and before they knew it were both proposing marriage to each other…

Subsequently neither could remember who first suggested it, and Mandy reasonably enough assumed Hamish might well shudder and retract his offer the next day. But no, he didn’t, he stayed firm in an odd and frowning conscientious stickler way, saying oh yes they should marry, but just to make sure of it Mandy arranged things as quickly as possible and they were wed in the tiny village church with Hamish in a smart grey suit and Mandy as a divorcee in modified bridal regalia. In attendance were ex-husband Tom Pasquier who had his arms folded as if preparing himself for a no holds barred Gallic debate, the giggling children Jenny and Des, Hamish’s son Billy, myself and Rona, and another dozen friends and the only one conspicuous by her absence was Georgina Wright who pleaded illness in the form of severe hay fever. The reception was in Mandy’s beautiful cottage and prominent there were Hamish’s parents knocking back the wine and the quiche and the smoked salmon sandwiches. They were hectic working class Glaswegians with a raw patter and a great enveloping warmth, and needless to say there was a stark existential disparity between their boozing spontaneity and Hamish’s watchful and always considered approach to this baffling puzzle called social intercourse.

The marriage took place in September when the bride was forty and the groom thirty-four, and, bar the technicalities, it had ended by the following January, just as Mandy Brown turned forty-one. Precisely four and a half months their nuptial state lasted, and afterwards Mandy said how embarrassed she was by that humiliating statistic. In retrospect it can only have been that she wedded the always elusive one so impulsively, because she was so wounded by his bland indifference when she visited him in India. It is a common enough fallacy applicable to all ages and cultures, that one can make an unfaithful partner faithful by marrying them, and in some ways it is a kind of sympathetic magic, or even a child’s logic and perhaps the two amount to the same thing. Worse still, in those four and a half months Hamish rapidly demonstrated his sense of marital claustrophobia by going all out to find other potential liaisons, having done a hasty mental checklist of the likeliest candidates. One of Mandy’s colleagues in the Resource Centre was darkly handsome forty-year-old Hazel Bone, a single mother with a small son Dennis who was a friend of Billy, and she was later to inform me (though not of course Mandy) what had happened. One afternoon about a month after the wedding, Hamish took Billy round to play with Dennis and while they were outside on the swings, walked up and promptly threw his beefy arms around Hazel’s shapely shoulders. In a great rush he blurted out that he had just done a weekend’s training course in Body Massage in a South Scottish mansion, and that he was required to do a certain number of hours of practice before he returned for part two of the course.

Hazel who had very black hair and knowing, baleful eyes, looked at him with raised eyebrows. “So why don’t you go and massage your wife’s?”


“Mandy’s. She’s there on tap. She’s your wife, Hamish, remember? You can massage her for the twenty or thirty or hundred hours practice you have to do, and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your fireside.”

On autopilot, Hamish was absently rubbing away at Hazel’s shoulders as he mumbled, “We’ve been told we have to practice with someone not a partner.”

After she had given me the seedy account, Hazel added, “Give the old dog his due. He can lie on demand better than anyone I know. It’s a kind of expert skill I suppose. But not one I’d want to marry, if I were called Mandy. I will give them a year together at most.”

She was wrong by all of eight months. In the meantime, at a party I attended where Mandy was in one room and Hamish in another, I saw him paying zealous attention to a good-looking recent arrival to the area, an actuary called Anthea Parker who was beautifully dressed, amusingly incredulous about everything under discussion, and in her energetic mid-thirties. I saw him bombarding her furiously with questions about her job and showing phenomenal interest in its technicalities, and also noted her incredulity as she decided this pushy gent would never remember a word of it past the present feverish interview. He ended by shoving his business card into her stiffening hand and grinningly demanding hers in return. I noted on her face a frank wonderment as to why she might believe that Gene Wilder/Just William here would ever need an actuary, or that she would suddenly need the assistance of a project coordinator, given that she commuted by train to Preston every day anyway.

So it was that Hamish eventually moved out and rented a flat on the Scots side in a fetching little Roxburgh border town, and then made things final by taking a year-long project working with political refugees down in Wiltshire. That meant he only came home alternate weekends to see his son and otherwise stalked around both sides of the Border foraging for whatever was going on in terms of short-term passion and long-term non-commitment. He and Mandy had almost nothing to do with each other from then onwards, though she would doubtless have dropped all if he had waved his hand either inside of outside of Scotland, in that area known very aptly in their marital context as the Debatable Lands. It was ad hoc law had always ruled in their emotional entanglement, just as it had in the sixteenth century in the No Man’s land that was neither one country nor another, one devastated and incendiarised reiver-stricken wasteland or another. The word bereaved comes from the reivers who were murderous Border bandits, and though Hamish would never have murdered anyone nor done them the mildest physical injury, he spread grief around him very ably as both Georgina Wright and Mandy Brown would separately attest.

Then the strangest thing ever, and something I still do not understand and probably never will. It was a September weekend in the millennial year 2000, and Hamish was still in Wiltshire and Rona my wife was attending a conference of international psychotherapists in Bucharest, Rumania. That weekend there was a long-awaited musical event in the capital of the North Pennines, a small and infinitely beautiful township that reclines at a vertiginous angle very high up in market town terms, and which might explain what happened there. The concert was a performance of Cajun and Zydeco music, not performed by some black bean and pecan pie virtuosos from New Orleans but from Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, and when the musicians talked between songs they had beguilingly Geordie accents. The bulk of the audience had migrated up from London and elsewhere to North Pennine seclusion some thirty years earlier, and were you might say venerable hippies in their late fifties. They had bought remote ramshackle farmhouses for £1000 or less in 1970, and those places were now worth £300,000, so they were hippies or rather hippy plutocrats with admirable, nay quite miraculous assets in the year 2000.

I went along with Mandy and her friend Hazel Bone, and another woman friend called Deirdre Morton who chainsmoked, and was a mental health nurse. Mandy barely drank these days, so was happy to do the driving and she had to stop twice on the twenty mile drive to let Deirdre have an urgent fag. The venue was the town hall with a special bar and the band were sufficiently high profile to lure a capacity audience, much of it bearded, long haired and/or white haired, and looking as if marinated in patchouli for at least a decade or so. The lights were dimmed and had a gentle pink radiance and of course being Cajun most of the songs were fast and zestful, so that we four decided to dance together to the tunes en masse. But then towards the end of the evening, they chose to do a nostalgic and openly mournful number at which Hazel Bone looked sullen and sat down heavily, and Deirdre said she was fucking off as she put it for a fucking snout. Mandy and I looked carefully at each other and decided yes we  wanted to dance to this slow number and we stood perhaps a yard apart and gave ourselves up to its hypnotic rhythm.

What happened next is almost impossible to describe. I looked at Mandy under the serene pink light and saw that she was looking surprisingly happy, the happiest I had seen her since her four month marriage had humiliatingly ended. But no, it wasn’t something as fragile as happiness that I saw, but more of a profound and limitless tranquillity that stemmed from somewhere far beyond the dimensions of this quaint old town hall upstairs room. It was all there in her small and subtle eyes that seemed to be moving in response to an indescribable inner music, emphatically not the music that was coming from the band, though that slow and mordant song they played may well have stirred up the strange and mesmerising chords that were inside and orchestrating the human being that was Mandy. Mandy was my partner on the dance floor though she was wasn’t looking at me at all, but gazing fearlessly and with a serene and poignant joy into what must surely be the infinite and the beyond. She was communing with herself that is, in touch with some unsung and immeasurable depths which had likely nourished and even cherished her for her entire life. It was also obvious that in such a frank state of rapture she was inviolable, and no one could seriously hurt nor harm her, for somehow she had learnt the trick of returning to this remarkable starting point of infinite inner gravity. At that point I reflected that her farce of a marriage with Hamish might well have wrecked another woman, but raw as she had felt after his desertion, Mandy had battled on and had brought up her young children and had held down her tough job, and had kept on painting and had walked and cycled and gone camping in a July heatwave with Hazel Bone and their hectic and demanding offspring on the Galloway coast.

What I saw in her was surely something of the indescribable and sublime, but of course Mandy Brown was not religious, more of a standard liberal agnostic with token leanings, encouraged by Hamish McKay, towards various oriental gnoses as well as meditation and Hatha Yoga. What that meant was that though she was currently entranced and protected and beyond any possible hurt or harm from any man or any phantom, she was wholly unaware of it, as unselfconscious as an infant child who takes their natural birthright of innocent euphoria unthinkingly for granted. This vision that I saw in my friend and occasional confidante Mandy, went on for the length of the dance, and then the band promptly changed tempo and started a fast and furious Cajun tune. Hazel Bone instantly stopped sulking and even smiled, Deirdre relinquished the urge to dart outside for yet another B and H, and Mandy suddenly went from a depthless mystery of innocent rapture into an attractive and heartening and altogether comical little smile.

All of this happened nearly twenty years ago. I have never mentioned it to Mandy Brown nor have I told any of it to anyone else. But it seems to me the world should know of things like this, for it is very rare that they happen, and rarer still do we dare to think about what they might mean.