The next post will be on or before Wednesday 18th July


I can usually tell Canadians from Americans but failed to do so recently. There was a large extended family of transatlantic tourists arrived in the Paradisos Café in the port yesterday, and they ordered huge and pricey breakfasts of omelettes, crepes and chocolate and cream covered waffles, thus keeping the staff feverishly on their toes as they raced up and down, to and from the balcony. Most prominently, there was the couple in their late 50s, she strikingly handsome and fair haired, he with a pirate’s kerchief on his head and a likeably comic provocative manner. They were accompanied by 3 friendly girls aged between 11 and 14, and a bulky and earnest man of about 30. He was impossibly young to be the Dad of all 3, but on the other hand if they were the children of the couple, they were all conceived in the woman’s forties.  The only feasible arithmetic allowed the young man to be their son, so Lord knows where the lovely kids came from. The girls were all crazy about the café cats and petted and took photos of them on their 3 splendid smartphones. Less explicable was the behaviour of the pirate husband who wandered into the cafe interior and approached the counter as if he wanted something badly. I was inside drinking coffee, and as there was no one around I walked into the kitchen to tell Maria she was needed. When she asked the quirky buccaneer what she could do for him he smiled a quizzical challenge and denied any need at all. He was just looking, he said, and then repeated the mysterious phrase. Just looking? Where did he think he was, John Lewis’s New Year Sales or the Hellenic equivalent?

Far odder than that, was that he disappeared from the café altogether for about 20 minutes, leaving the others on the balcony. When he arrived back and stood at the bottom of the balcony steps, he grinned paradoxically at his wife, then lifted up the kerchief to disclose a dramatically shaved head. The wife and the three girls all laughed and clapped their hands at this surprise tonsure, for evidently he had gone into the nearby hairdresser and had an impromptu makeover. I had no idea what his head looked like previously, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d had a thick and dense mop of curls, and had capriciously decided to shock the world today, or at least one of his worlds. Replacing his kerchief, he then strolled restlessly across to me and pointing said, ‘This guy is having his fix!’ the reason being I was currently enjoying a bottle of prizewinning Fix Beer, as manufactured here in Greece. His tone was friendly and not at all confrontational, and I smiled at both him and his wife. She walked over to where I sat and looking at the cat on my lap asked me about Asproula or Little Whitey, the beautiful snow-white stray who has adopted me as her favourite handy seat as of 4 and a half years ago. She used a strange expression and asked me was she a ‘communal’ cat. It is an amiable enough phrase, but implies the whole community might have affectionately adopted Asproula which is far from being the case. The Greeks tolerate but on the whole dislike stray cats and do nothing to encourage them. So street cats or stray cats is by far the more accurate representation of Asproula and her colleagues’ existential reality.

“Where are you  from?” I asked the handsome woman, expecting to hear Oregon or Philadelphia or Chattanooga.

“We’re from Toronto.”

I stared at the pirate’s beautiful wife, surprised, even abashed. “I always thought I could tell Canadians apart from Americans. I think it must be the first time ever that I got it wrong.”

At which she smiled with a most natural and expansive kindness, as if to say what did it really matter. But then I went on hurriedly, “I wouldn’t care, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Donald Sutherland lately, and he’s a Canadian.”

Again she glanced at me with an infinite tolerance, as unabashed by my bizarre and random comment, as she had been by her husband’s all or nothing and I now decided confrontational haircut (take it or leave it cos it’s me and it’s a fact). She didn’t bother to ask me why I’d been thinking so much about Sutherland, as if indeed it was the most natural thing in the world for everyone in creation to be ruminating about the remarkable actor.

I could have told her it was because I had been watching Sutherland for the umpteenth time as Casanova in the eponymous Fellini masterpiece from 1976. The range of the man’s acting there is quite simply beyond belief, for he goes from tender to quizzical, to arrogant, to humiliated, to grief stricken, to farcical, to narcissistic, to besotted, to suicidal desperation, to a calm and very final tranquillity, and to all else in between. And yet, naïve as it might sound, he is after all just the one man representing just the other one man of history.

I didn’t tell her any of that, but instead said doggedly:

“Joni Mitchell is Canadian too. Isn’t she?”

She chuckled uncritically at that, and said yes indeed Joni was. And then she shouted up for the kids and for the bulky, smileless man, and she and her jaunty pirate of a husband set off at the front in the direction of their yacht.



The next post will be on or before Sunday 15th July


What follows you will probably find barely credible, but I am repeating it verbatim, exactly as it happened. Almost exactly 20 years ago I happened to be on the phone to a literary editor of a UK national newspaper for which I wrote regular fiction reviews. She was a very busy woman of course, but I was nonetheless shocked when the conversation went as follows:

SHE. Hi there. How are you?

ME (after some hesitation). Well, my wife’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

SHE (nil pause) Oh really? That’s great! That’s great!

I didn’t, as it happened, challenge her by repeating what I had said, though for both our sakes in retrospect I wish I had. Had I made the same appalling auditory error as she had, I would certainly have wanted her to tell me of it immediately. And no, before you anticipate, I wasn’t mumbling into my beard that morning and for some reason my strong Cumbrian accent tended to all but disappear when I talked to any metropolitan literati.  Nor of course, was it that this particular woman was an unthinking psychopath, it was just that her job was such a classic pressured blue-arsed fly one, that unless the topic were strictly about book reviews and final deadlines, she just didn’t listen to what people were saying.

Nonetheless, it is both an anecdotal and a provable statistical fact, that women on the whole listen to men a great deal more than men do to women.  A friend of mine recently confided to me what I would already have guessed, that the bulk of UK men she met via an online dating agency for professional people, simply talked about themselves all the time, and asked either nothing or a few token questions about herself and her career. Whenever she answered the latter as best she could (she had been a successful teacher and then a kind of university pastoral worker) she assumed they couldn’t possibly be listening to her, for they both talked over her, and, as rapidly as they could, resumed their monologues about their endearing masculine selves. This woman also happened to have a fascinating and highly refined artistic talent which any right-thinking person would have wished to ask her about till the cows come home, but no Milord The Civil (good joke) Engineer and Des the breezily Monologuing Upmarket Gym Manager never asked her squit.

We can all guess the historical reasons for this monomania on the part of numerous males, for although it is almost 50 years since Germaine Greer published her ground-breaking  The Female Eunuch, unreformed sexism is alive and kicking in places you would think it might have died a death. There is most recently the brutal coercive abuse revealed in the supposedly liberal media world, of men like Harvey Weinstein demanding masturbatory sex in exchange for career advancement, or even worse if it was withheld the woman actor would be blacklisted within the film industry. Rather like the institutionalised sexual abuse of children within the extended spheres of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, it was both the tip of the iceberg and an open secret. Everybody knew about it, and knew it was no doubt disgusting and doubtless caused endless torment to its victims, but nobody did anything about it, because everyone was afraid of those who held an inordinate amount of power and almost all of these powerful  folk happened to be men. Probably the aptest way of defining these predatory males is that they are severely infantilised individuals who do not understand adult boundaries, so think to themselves on the lines of, your body is self-evidently mine to do with as I want, if I so wish. Any truly functioning adult would be appalled by that demented equation,  but there is a whole structurally related spectrum that leads back to the starting line so speak of  those charming men we all know who think they are a hero if they make their wife a cup of tea, and would throw up their arms in merriment if expected to cook a three course meal. It is not as bad as it was in DH Lawrence’s day no doubt, where in Sons and Lovers, a sulking collier would sweep everything off the mantelpiece if it wasn’t as pristine clean as he expected it. But fast-forwarding a full century to 1990 (meaning 20 years after Greer’s remarkable book) when I was looking after my baby daughter Ione in rural NE Cumbria and Annie was working full time as a busy social work training officer, I asked the friendly health visitor who made occasional visits how many people she knew like me, a Dad doing full time child care. This infinitely capable woman was it turned out responsible not only for NE Cumbria but also rural E Cumbria around far-flung Alston and Nenthead and Garrigill. Both areas had about 900 infants each, and until recently no less than 2 anomalous infants out of the 1800 had been looked after by their Dads. But the other bloke had gradually got unbearably fed up with his job, so now I was the sole bearded carer out of 1800 ‘Mums’.

You would think, would you not, that the sophisticated literary world meaning the world of nuance and ineffable rumination and scrutiny, that it would be ipso facto educated, liberal and aware, and the last place where the sweet little doting woman would be treated as a handy attachment to her heroic chap, forever in the throes of his capricious artistic genius. As it happens the majority of writers do not have writer partners, and my wife Annie from the mid 80s onwards had high flying careers as first a social work trainer, then a private consultant trainer, and ultimately a national expert in Organisational Transactional Analysis, meaning she was a highly regarded specialist who was brilliant at helping groups of people to work together cooperatively in their jobs. Yet almost every time we found ourselves in among a bunch of poets, playwrights and novelists at a party, it was always me was asked the interesting and flattering questions about what precisely I was up to and without exception the arty-farty men there would ask my incredibly talented wife precisely nothing about what she might be busy with.

And yet, even more startling, was that it wasn’t always the arty-farty men who saw all male creative artists per se as a kind of minor which is to say a major and truly worshipful domestic deity. At one of these crowded literary dos we attended, a commercially successful woman writer on discovering that both Annie and I worked much of the time at home, turned with a worried expression to her, and more or less accused her of potentially getting in the way of the great man, by disturbing his oh so necessary pristine solitude, without which the necessary inspirational lightning would surely never strike. Annie being a wise and always gentle woman, instead of swearing at her, pointed out that we had separate offices and nobody ever got in anyone’s way, unless it were our 2 daft dogs always tripping us up en route to the kitchen and coffee. I would also have said what Annie didn’t bother to say, that her work was arguably more valuable than mine would ever be, both intrinsically in her helping people to be so much happier in their jobs…but also because it was Annie who made most of our income, and thus kept  the show, meaning me, her, and our child Ione, on the road that we travelled…




The next post will be on or before Sunday July 8th


I don’t know about you, but New Year’s Eve is my least favourite festive celebration. There is something about the spectacle of worldwide and flatteringly televised urban partying, washed down with booze and uproarious cheering and endless fireworks, that at best seems innocent wishful thinking and at worst a feckless and alienated denial of unflinching human realities. At the sobering national level, they whoop it up in totalitarian China where you can get jailed or even shot for protesting about flagrant civic corruption, and they also whoop it up in harmless places like Finland where no one gets shot for doing anything and where the prospect of a Happy New Year for any of it citizens is almost, and I stress almost, a working reality. But it is the unconvincing timescale that is the real issue here. The time axis for the hackneyed benediction Happy New Year! is a bloody long one, 12 long months, and in reality, neither you nor me nor all those hooraying kids in NY, Paris and London pie-eyed at the prospect of the coming Shangri La, that mystical and sentimental entity which is the pristine and unsullied year to come, can expect a whole year to be entirely without its hitches, worries, griefs and even tragedies. I am not a pessimist by any means, quite the opposite, but even the best year one has in one’s life, and I have had some great ones, is inevitably marred by the fact that others all over the world are living in a timeless which is to say eternal hell of either poverty or wholesale oppression, in part structurally linked to the fact that you and I are not. So, if you are going to believe in the cheery authenticity of Happy New Year! you might as well believe in Happy New Decade! so that at midnight on 31.12.2009 you should have been bawling in your partying pal’s lughole to that effect, 10 whole years of fun my best beloved! and here’s to you! But why after all stop there? On 31.12.1999 had you thought seriously about your luxurious options, you could have had a 2 in 1, a buy 1 get 1 free wishy-wish-wish, because you could have carolled in the same lughole, Happy New Century! my dear old bosom chum! and while we are it, and at the same time permit me to felicitate you with, A Happy New One Thousand Years ! you hoary old bastard, you!

Which is where we come to Greece and their idea of benedictions, which are both complex and simple and innately intelligent, because, I would argue, of the learned wisdom of mostly oppressive centuries. They celebrate New Year as much as anyone else, and being Greek, their fireworks are louder and more frightening than anywhere else in the universe, and go on for what seems several millennia. The official New Year partying on Kythnos is in the Hora capital, but in 2014 daughter Ione and I stayed in the port here and dined late at the excellent Kandouni grill, the only place open as it stole to midnight, and with about a dozen other quietly chatting customers. When it turned 2015, the shy and affable owner switched the electric light off for one second, and then switched it on again, and that was it. There followed subdued clapping and handshakes and numerous kisses. A man after my heart, I thought, as I knocked back his bakalarios cod fritters with skordalia bread and garlic sauce and his fried courgettes in their eggwhite batter that are surely not made by a man nor woman but by an angel. So yes, the Greeks do like everyone else wish each other a one-year long felicitation, but acknowledging the brevity and sometimes painful uncertainty of life, they also pragmatically work backwards in time, and at the start of every month wish you Kalo Minas! or Happy New Month! Better still every Monday morning (yes you are right a week starts on a Sunday but try telling a Greek that) they wish you Kali vdhomadha! Happy New Week, 7 days of innocent fun and always joyful surprises, let us pray!

But best of all, and I would say it is a truly transcendent and infinitely instructive concept, plus I believe they are probably the only nation in the world to do so, Greeks very often say as they leave you and go on their way, Kali synekhia! There is no straightforward English equivalent of this, as it means literally Happy Continuity! and to give it more logical sense we need to parse it at some length: May Your Day Continue To Go Seamlessly Well!  The nearest UK or more likely US version of this, would be Have a Nice Day! which quite rightly has been laughed into touch by those repelled by autopilot fawning from shop assistants, bank managers and all others required to grovel in order to earn their sales and/or commissions. But the reality is the Greeks are only blessing you for the rest of the 24 hours the pair of you are sharing together on this earth….and having spent centuries under the no nonsense Ottomans, plus the various brutal army juntas starting with Metaxas, continuing with the post war Royalist right supported by napalm-flinging Americans and the phlegmatic arms-folded Brits as their Greek allies pursued the leftists into Albania, and carrying on doggedly siga siga 1967-1974 with the mad Athens generals and their  heartfelt blessing by heroic Richard Nixon…having suffered all of that and getting no credit for it, internationally speaking, the Greeks know that to get through just today itself is enough of an ambition for starters.



What We Did and What I Read in 2000

Millennial 2000 was a big year for all three of us. It was over a year since Annie’s chemotherapy had finished and to celebrate the fact she went trekking in Peru to raise money for The Children’s Society. Ione meanwhile started her Cumbrian secondary school at somewhere rated highest in the much-venerated league tables, but from Day 1 she loathed having to wear uniform and spent as much time as possible trying to make it non-uniform. That summer, after a long struggle, I had my novel John Dory accepted by Flambard Press, and a few months later I turned 50, a full half century. My surprise present from Annie, only revealed the night before, was that we were off to glorious cosmopolitan Dublin for a long weekend. Highlights of that trip included watching a raw contemporary drama at The Gate Theatre where the humble but excellent bars of Irish chocolate in the foyer cost 30p and the coffee 25p. Pricewise it was like being back in the Century Theatre, Keswick West Cumbria in 1962, though in the nearby expensive Korean restaurant we were conspicuously the only non-Koreans and were pleased to be so. We also met an impressive joker in Dublin bus station, a coach driver who poker-faced told us our bus to Wicklow had already departed, then seeing our mugs fall, guffawed no no, I’m lying, there it is, and it’s me is driving the fecker.

In September Annie flew with her group to Lima, thence to Cuzco and then trekked along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, accompanied by guides and tireless porters, and those porters my wife could not praise enough. Mostly small and wiry men, they were strong enough to take impossible loads, make all the tea and snacks and meals, were cheerful and kind to a fault, and were more than likely paid a pittance. All her group had suffered altitude sickness in Cuzco so that the splendid banquet specially prepared for them they could barely touch. That plus the fact she had been through major surgery and arduous chemo, meant that Annie nearly didn’t make it to the top of Machu Picchu and the trek leader almost had her airlifted back to Cuzco. But my wife took a deep breath and rallied as she always did, and somehow got herself to the summit, where she rang me at our 18th century farmhouse near Brampton, North Cumbria.  Back in 2000 the international mobile signal also had altitude sickness for it was all whistles and eerie short-wave splutters, but to hear her brave and loving voice from such a profound and moving place, was a poignant and enchanting joy that will never fade.

A month before, on the agreed principle of visiting the obscurest Greek islands possible, we travelled to tiny Kimolos, and spent a week there and another week on adjacent Milos. Annie and I, veteran backpackers, always believed in turning up on spec, and in any case 18 years ago there was no and no one we knew had ever reserved or bought anything online. But not only was it high season August, there was some special festival on in Kimolos and accommodation was at a premium. Worse still there was neither a bus nor a taxi on the little island, so as dusk drew on, we had to leg it in great heat from the minuscule port Psathi, which then amazingly had nil rooms at any time of year, up to the beautiful Hora. Luckily it wasn’t far and even better, after trying 5 places, we were directed to a restaurant cum domatia at the very pinnacle of the capital. The short squat, warmly grinning owner was about 50 and was both likeable and clearly devious, a common enough phenomenon in many Greek islands in August when I think about it. He pretended to think for a moment and said he did have a room, then put us in some kind of makeshift forgotten annex with 3 beds that was tolerable enough, albeit the wardrobe was nailed fast and the seating provision outside where Annie and I bebbed retsina every night was a torn and dirty bus seat (on an island without a bus that is).  Every day we would see darkly sunburnt, grizzled shepherds on mules taking a short cut near the restaurant and they all wore massive poncho hats and looked more 19th C Mexicans than millennial Greeks. They also had a certain uncompromising pride about them, partly down to the fact that Kimolos doesn’t need tourists, for it is self-sufficient in terms of mining, especially of Fuller’s earth (kimolo means ‘chalk’ which is now exhausted on the island). A less savoury discovery was that when we visited a remote beach taverna that certainly looked an eternal idyll, the handsome Polish waitress in her 20s said she had only got the job on condition she slept with the fat and bone-idle 60-year-old owner who sat there beaming at his cronies and his waitress, as if he had the whole of his chosen universe under control.

Kimolos is the only inhabited satellite isle of the much bigger Milos, and when we transferred there we stopped in the invigorating port of Pollonia. It was even harder getting accommodation here, and we had to try a dozen places before finding somewhere right next to the handsome little strip of beach. In 2000 they were still using drachmas in Greece, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the 1500cc bottles of Kourtaki retsina cost exactly 1750 dr, if only because Annie and I drank the cool and aromatic wine every night on our terrace accompanied by black olives and pistachios. The one great diversion of that week was the appearance in little Pollonia of a travelling strongman aged about 35, bearded and quite handsome, built like a brick shithouse needless to add, and clad in fake leopard skin. In private he was outstandingly polite, and after his performance addressed us obvious foreigners in good English, and urged Ione aged 11 never to start smoking nor adopt any other deleterious habits. About 3 years later she was clandestinely puffing away at school and home, but he himself was scarcely a lifelong role model albeit in an obscure sense. The piece de resistance of his Tarzan act was for him to drag a sizeable saloon car several yards along the beach with a stout rope inserted in his teeth via a kind of cloth mouthpiece. It was a spellbinding thing to watch, and made me think of provincial and seemingly magical entertainment from previous centuries, but Nikos as he was called was getting massive amounts of exhaust fumes in his face as he pulled, and surely they were even more noxious than the likes of 20 Assos he was warning our daughter against in the summer of 2000.

What I Read in 2000 (from my Reading Diary for that year)

Tommaso and the Blind Photographer by Gesualdo Bufalino (compelling Sicilian author 1920-1996, helped along the way by another great Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia)

Reflections on the Water by Alan Ross (1922- 2001. Fine 2000 travel book by the legendary editor of the London Magazine, who succeeded John Lehmann)

Another Part of the Forest by GB Stern (enjoyable literary essays by friend and contemporary of Rebecca West who wrote the marvellous Matriarch novels, all reissued by Virago)

Left and Right/The Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth (1894-1939. The great Austrian Jewish writer was a chronic alcoholic and his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis. He died at the age of 45)

Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare (born 1936. Albania’s greatest writer, long resident in Paris)

Beloved Stranger by Clare Boylan (1948-2006. One of her quirkier novels about an old Irish spinster mistaking the identity of a young black woman arrived in Dublin. Very enjoyable)

Birds of Passage by Robert Sole (born 1946. Fine French Egyptian writer who won the Prix Mediterranee in 1992)

The Chateau by William Maxwell (1908-2000. The 1961 novel of the legendary New Yorker fiction editor)

The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (Wells wrote numerous novels, most of them comic, but only a handful  I would say are genuinely funny, including Mr Polly, Kipps, Tono Bungay, Love and Mr Lewisham, and Ann Veronica. Those like Mr Britling Sees It Through and The Bulpington of Blup are well-nigh unreadable. In 1980 Mr Polly was televised by the BBC with Andrew Sachs = the Fawlty Towers’ Manuel in the title role)

Meanwhile by HG Wells (this was one of his rare novels about contemporary political issues, in this case the General Strike of 1926. I enjoyed it very much)

The New Machiavelli by HG Wells (this is more of a didactic novel, and Wells was not only a famous Utopian but also believed in unsavoury things like eugenics. At one stage due to his phenomenal literary eminence and fabled productivity, he was one of the best known celebrities in the world)

Easter by Michael Arditti (the 2000 novel of the writer and critic whose novels deal with spirituality and sexuality. His early books were published by the now defunct Arcadia Press, run by the late great Gary Pulsifer)

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie (my favourite Rushdie novels are Shame, about the politics of Pakistan, and The Moor’s Last Sigh. On my 4th reading of Midnight’s Children I was to my surprise actually bored in parts, as his recurrent magical motifs are so relentlessly rammed home)

Dona Perfecta by Benito Perez Galdos (Spain’s greatest 19th C author, several of whose works were beautifully adapted by Luis Bunuel. It is surely appalling that some UK readers who know their Flaubert and Dostoievsky backwards, haven’t even heard of their Spanish equivalent nor his Portuguese counterpart Eca de Queiroz)

One Way or Another by Leonardo Sciascia (1921-1989. This is the 1974 novel of the great Sicilian novelist and radical politician, who famously wrote about the kidnapping and murder of the Christian Democrat Aldo Moro)

The Green Knight by Iris Murdoch (at her best she is one of my favourite writers and at her whimsical worst I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. She was also a philosophy don at Oxford)

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

Heloise and Abelard by George Moore (1852-1993. The Dublin writer who was part of the Irish Literary Revival movement alongside Lady Gregory etc, but who is little read these days. He originally trained as an artist in Paris and his 1883 bohemian novel A Modern Lover was banned by the English circulating libraries. Esther Waters was once televised by the BBC and his Confessions of a Young Man is still very readable. His epic Biblical novel The Brook Kerith is hard going in my view)

The Courrier Affair by Marta Morazzoni (born 1950 in Lombardy. This 1997 novel won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award)

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (one of my favourites. Famously it was what TV comedian Tony Hancock took to bed with him on a depressing Christmas Day)

Men of Good Will by Jules Romains (pen name of Louis Farigoule 1885-1972, famous for his 27 volume novel cycle of which this is the eponymous title. He also knew Georges Duhamel, one of my favourite writers)

Inferno by Benito Perez Galdos

A History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago (wonderfully gifted Nobel winner 1998 and my literary hero)

The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’ Doherty (multi -talented Irish art critic and novelist born 1928 who has spent most of his life in NY. This extremely compelling 1999 novel was Booker shortlisted in 2000)

The Arrow of Gold by Joseph Conrad

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis (my favourite work by the great Cretan novelist, author of Zorba the Greek)

The Stone Raft by Jose Saramago (a daring blackly comic fantasy about the consequences of the Iberian peninsula, meaning Portugal and Spain, splitting in two)

Paris  by Emile Zola

Pity For Women by Henri Montherlant (1895-1972. This is one of the tetralogy entitled The Girls which sold millions of copies worldwide. A brilliant but harsh writer Montherlant was expelled from Catholic boarding school for a gay relationship and was famously misogynistic. He committed suicide with a gun and a cyanide tablet)

Asphyxiation by Violette le Duc (1907-1972. This is the first novel published 1946 of the author of the Lesbian classic Therese and Isabelle)

Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy (1912-1989. Contains harrowing details about the sadistic childhood abuse by her Uncle Myers. She was a political radical, activist and atheist whose best known works are the 1942 The Company She Keeps and the 1954 The Group)

Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly (1903-1974. Editor of Horizon and someone who knew absolutely everyone from Aldous Huxley to Henry Miller and bisexual novelist Violet Trefusis by whom he was smitten)

Off The Rails by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (enjoyable travel writing by someone who never flies but only goes by train. Author of Slow Train to Milan, Keepers of the House, and other classics, she is one of the few contemporary UK novelists that I really admire. That might I suppose be because she has spent so much of her life abroad)

River of Fire by Francois Mauriac (1885-1970. Nobel winner 1952. I once read 6 of his novels in a row)

The Stories of Frank O’ Connor (Ireland’s best known story writer, one of whose best known tales is called My Oedipus Complex)

The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy (I love Hardy but this is one of his more wooden and barely readable novels)

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (that’s more like it)

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

The Dove’s Nest by Katherine Mansfield (NZ writer, 1888-1923, one of the greatest story writers ever. She was married to the eminent British critic John Middleton Murry and died aged only 34 of TB)

A Russian Gentleman by Sergei Aksakov (1791-1859. He specialised in writing semi-autobiographical tales about Russian life as well as memoirs on fishing. A friend of Gogol, Dostoievsky and Tolstoy)

The Pain Tree by Charles Wilkinson (debut story collection by a gifted writer whose fiction appeared in London Magazine and Panurge Fiction Magazine which I edited for 6 years)

Seven Men by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956. Famous writer, caricaturist and parodist who died in Rapallo, Italy)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch

Launcelot Greaves by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771. Of the picaresque 18th C UK novelists I much prefer Scotsman Smollett to Henry Fielding of Tom Jones fame. Smollett was a ship’s surgeon which meant he saw life in the raw, and there is a kind of comic brutality which he presents as an undeniable fact of life. The only novel of his I don’t like is the shapeless and tedious Ferdinand Count Fathom, which I believe he must have written when drunk)

Bruno’s Dream by Iris Murdoch

Mr Gilhooley by Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984. His strange 1926 novel about a Dublin loner rich from investments in S Africa, who ends up with a capricious waif of a woman who drives him half mad. WB Yeats thought it a masterpiece)

Return of the Brute by Liam O’ Flaherty

Insurrection by Liam O Flaherty (Published 1950. His last novel which is about the Easter Uprising of 1916)

Skerrett by Liam O’ Flaherty (this abrasive, disturbing work and all of  his  fine, uncompromising novels were reissued in the 1990s by Wolfhound Press, Dublin, which is now sadly defunct)

Eca’s English Letters (Eca de Queiroz was Portugal’s greatest 19th C writer and for a time he was working in the Portuguese consulate in Newcastle upon Tyne)

The Creation of the World by Miguel Torga (1907-1995. One of Portugal’s greatest 20th C writers. This six volume autobiographical novel was published between 1937 and 1981)

Journey to Portugal by Jose Saramago (engaging travelogue by the Nobel winner)

Jack Yeats by Bruce Arnold (wonderful authoritative study of the great Irish artist who was brother of the poet WB Yeats)

Les Liaisons Culinaires by Andreas Staikos (born 1944 in Athens. This is his 1997 novel also known as Dangerous Cooking, and he is also a prolific playwright)

Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch

Gardener to the King by Frederic Richaud (born 1966.  Published in 1999 as Monsieur le Jardinier, and the king in question was Louis XIV. Richaud also writes comic book scenarios)

The Lightning of August by Jorge Ibarguengoitia (1928-1983. Mexican satirical crime novelist who often used real events and scandals for his novels)

A Word Child by Iris Murdoch

A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm

Island Cross Talk by Tomas O’Crohan (translation of the fine memoir by Blasket Island author, Co Kerry, who also wrote The Islandman )

The Boy on the Wall by James Plunkett (best known for his excellent 1969 bestseller Strumpet City about the period up to the dockland lockout in Dublin 1913. He also wrote some fine short stories collected by Poolbeg Press)

A Deputy Was King by GB Stern (one of the addictive Matriarch novels about the Rakonitz Czelovar Jewish business dynasty, after they had settled themselves in London. Published by Virago)

Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967. Excellent comic novel by famously acerbic Irish poet from Monaghan who also wrote the hilarious The Green Fool)

Desire by James Stephens (1880-1950. Irish poet and story writer whose best known work is the 1912 Crock of Gold, based on Irish fairy tales. He was a friend of and collaborator with James Joyce)

Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy (his most shocking novel which was dramatised not very convincingly by the BBC in 1971 with Robert Powell as Jude)

Man and Superman, Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, John Bull’s Other Island, The Doctor’s Dilemma, from the Complete Plays of GB Shaw (I enjoyed all of these, especially the last one, but have never once seen Shaw on either stage or TV. We read Pygmalion at school however)

A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland by Liam O’ Flaherty

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Famine by Liam O’ Flaherty (his harrowing 1937 epic about the Irish potato famines of the 1840s)

Flann O’ Brien by Anthon Cronin (illuminating critical study of the great comic writer, 1910-1966, who only achieved his proper recognition some 10 years after his death)



The next post will be or before Friday July 6th


If you are British, and even if you are not, there is a fair chance you have seen the 1986 movie Mona Lisa starring Bob Hoskins (1942-2014) at least half a dozen times. Directed by prizewinning Irish author and filmmaker Neil Jordan (born 1950) it is always being shown on TV and in the old days was a gratis DVD in the Sunday Times. Jordan has made some unarguable masterpieces, including 3 political thrillers: namely the 1982 Angel set by the Northern Irish seaside starring Stephen Rea; then, also with Rea and Forest Whitaker as an innocent black soldier, The Crying Game (1992), and finally the 1996 biographical movie Michael Collins featuring Liam Neeson. Also first class was The End of the Affair (1999), an adaptation of the Graham Greene, novel, with suave and cryptic Ralph Fiennes and decorous and conscience stricken Julianne Moore on top form. However, Jordan has also made two execrable duds in the shape of the misfiring ghostly comedy High Spirits (1988) with Peter O’Toole, and even worse the unwatchable 2005 adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto, which as far as I can remember has talking sparrows in it.

Mona Lisa despite the awards and acclaim it received, is not a masterpiece, neither I am glad to say, is it anywhere near being a dud. It has many fine things in it, including a bravura performance from Bob Hoskins playing middle aged Londoner George, recently out of a 7 year prison sentence and now driver for a high class and beautiful black call girl called Simone, under the aegis of Soho master crook Denny, a man so sleazy and appalling you want to hit him as soon as he is on the screen. Denny is played immaculately by Michael Caine (born 1933) who adopts his customary oblique Cockney rhetoric in playing the part, and takes nil responsibility for letting George take the rap 7 years earlier. George is both frightened of and contemptuous of Denny, and at the start of the film enters his club and leaves a live white rabbit to be given to Denny as indication of his boss’s cowardice. Before that and just out of jail he goes to visit his teenage daughter Jeannie (Zoe Nathenson born 1969, who now runs her own film school) who is living with his estranged wife. He bears flowers and wears a tidy white suit, but the screaming mother kicks him out and orders Jeannie to get in the house. George reacts by flinging a full dustbin at the door and then doing the same at the gawping amused neighbours, the majority of them black. He is rescued from retribution by his old mate Thomas, played by Robbie Coltrane (born 1950) who is a kind of dramatic foil to the horrible gangster underworld, as he is a decent man living alone in a shack of a garage with his ramshackle bed in among all the ramshackle cars. Coltrane does his usual dry unfoolable persona, but his character and Hoskins’ relationship with him are I would say the weakest thing in the film. He is given 2 quirky attributes which are meant to be funny, but in my view are not, more like facetious. One is making avant garde sculptures in his garage out of spaghetti and the other is retailing the mad labyrinthine plots of mad thrillers where characters like dwarves and even horses turn out to be the villains. Hoskins reads all these recommended books and the two of them spend far too much time swapping opinions about these whimsical and tedious artefacts. Robbie Coltrane is a gifted and very successful actor but he played the same autopilot facetious one liner part in his relationship with Emma Thompson in the otherwise excellent TV rockband drama Tutti Frutti which interestingly was made about the same time (1987) as Mona Lisa.

George’s relationship with Simone (Cathy Tyson, born 1965 and best known from the ITV series Band of Gold) is far more nuanced and convincing, and is frequently very touching. She is a high-class prostitute for rich always elderly clients with special tastes, and the meetings are usually in plush hotels where the snooty head waiter is also a class of discreet custodial pimp. In one enjoyable scene George storms in on Simone when she is long delayed, only to find an old man in hideous white underwear who has her in her bra and knickers tied up and gagged on the bed. George throws him out of the room, unties the angry Simone, who stands of course to lose money, and then as they run out of the hotel he batters the head waiter whilst Simone flings mace in the lackey’s eyes, her trusted device against all aggressive males. By this stage, she and her driver are on relatively amiable terms, but to start with she mocks him for his terrible dress sense and gives George a wad of money to buy something decent. He  duly purchases a reasonable jacket, but to her disgust goes for the maddest Waikiki shirt in the world. She scorns his stupidity and he angrily retorts that he is cheap, and she must accept that, but nonetheless the two of them gradually develop a convincing and moving tenderness. Simone thoughtfully has a liveried waiter take refreshments out to the car where George is waiting for her, and George demonstrates his nascent feelings by telling her that for him, Simone is emphatically a lady, not a tart. However, there is a twist and a subtext, inasmuch as Simone was once not so elevated but was working the London streets on the nightmarish thoroughfare near King’s Cross, mostly peopled by young prostitutes with severe drug addictions. She had a friend among them she has lost touch with, who is still only in her teens, a blond-haired waif called Cathy (played by Kate Hardie, born 1969 who is daughter of the TV comedian Bill Oddie). Simone commissions George to try and find her, and together they trawl King’s Cross, mistaking various girls for Cathy, and there is an excellent scene where an aggressive and loathsome young pimp in a jaunty trilby hat has his face battered on the wound down car window by no nonsense George. Male violence is predictably a constant motif in the film, and as George sets about detective style to track down Cathy on his own, he takes a wrong lead and ends up in some seedy brothel where he poses as a customer interested in blond underage girls, one of whom has a face covered in ugly bruises. George sits on her bed and grills her about her identity, but she urges him in a babyfied voice to make love to her, or she will be beaten up for not doing her job. Later he takes her out for an ice cream in an egg and chip café and again in her reduced state she babbles pathetic baby talk, and likewise when George eventually finds the real Cathy, she not only whines like a deprived infant but can eat only ice cream, a convincing dietary detail when it comes to women with severe drug addictions.

George had eventually tracked down Cathy in a massive, empty London church where she is liaising with her black pimp Anderson, a Denny employee played by star US actor Clarke Peters (born 1952) familiar from The Wire. They meet in the church, because of course it is the one place where no one ever goes, and eventually Hoskins follows them to a crumbling mansion owned by Denny, who is busy parading around in a supervisory role in an impeccable dinner jacket. There in an adjacent boudoir, Cathy has to give her body to a disturbing old man in a dressing gown who has an array of nasty implements he will employ for rear penetration of the underage girl. George sees all this by reflection in a purpose built voyeuristic mirror, whereupon incensed he bursts in to steal the girl, and ultimately takes her down to Brighton where Simone has just eloped.

The film accelerates to compelling pursuit and panic mode, as come to think of it do most films set in Brighton, and when George has pale and fragile Cathy safely in a smart hotel, she discloses that Simone is not just any old friend but a very special one. Later he spots the two of them lying on a bed as if they are lifelong lovers, and he takes Simone on a walk along the pier to pour his heart out. There are 2 admirably powerful scenes in the film, where one of them is justifiably incensed and the other is as it were exposed and stricken. The first is when George discovers a porn video of Simone giving fellatio to a faceless black man, confronts her with it, and she beats him across the face with a belt in her anger and her shame. Hoskins shows his tears and humiliation with incredible poignance and likewise he unleashes his anguished rage now, for as he sees it he has ‘risked everything, including his life, for two dykes’. To emphasise the bilious black comedy, as he sees it, he promptly purchases two pairs of ludicrous ornamented sunglasses with plastic frames, such as little kids would wear. With the pair of them looking like partying buffoons, he accuses her of callously mocking his feelings and of risking his neck. However, he is stopped half way through his excoriation, as 3 of Denny’s London heavies have turned up, including Cathy’s minder, Anderson. The pair of them manage to race back to the hotel, where as final irony, with Cathy still fast asleep, Denny is sat calmly on an armchair caressing the white rabbit that was given him as an emblem of his cowardice. Caine stands up and in his usual spry hectoring tone, starts slapping Simone brutally on the face. At which point, with a precautionary gun earlier provided by George, she shoots him dead, and he is splayed across the wall covered in blood, the little white rabbit meanwhile sniffing innocently nearby. She also blasts and kills Anderson and all the rest of the heavies. But the amiable conclusion is inexplicable as far as I can see, for we learn no more about Simone and Cathy, but George returns to London and joyfully resumes a kind of wholesome family life with daughter Jeannie, even down to Robbie Coltrane lending her an avuncular arm as she is sandwiched happily between him and her Dad.

I am still baffled why all 3 of them, the two gay lovers and George, weren’t quickly tracked down by the police and put away for decades, but that aside, this is still a fine and engaging movie with a haunting soundtrack, and it is worth rewatching at least once a year for ever more.


The next post will be on before Wednesday July 4th


I mentioned recently my friend Kostas, a successful professional Athenian in his mid-50s who has family connections with Kythnos and who is, what’s that word I really hate, conflicted. Or rather I see him very obviously as that, whereas he is quite happy to hold diametrically unreconcilable opinions regarding this out of the way and relatively tiny Cycladean island.  Kostas give him his due reveres the pure and simple old-fashioned Kythnos, with its elderly goat farmers straddling patient little donkeys, alongside the winding monopati footpaths and their handsome kserolithia dry stone walls, unlike their Cumbrian counterpart having a huge lozenge-shaped support boulder at regular intervals. He also loves the authentic version of inland village life where the cafes and restaurants crowd the main narrow thoroughfare, meaning a kind of amiable congestion where everyone is on top of everyone else and there is no way of feeling lonely or alone however hard you try. It is a village life where the little shops, especially those selling clothes and household goods are in unwinnable competition with the internet or a trip to Athens or Lavrio laiki agora/ folk market, and where exhilaratingly if you happen to be on a budget, many things are a third, a quarter, or sometimes a tenth of the island price. As a result, they get few customers other than the old and the loyal and an occasional tourist, and consequently feel no obligation to man an empty shop, but leave the key in the door and wait for the hopefuls to ask anyone passing by where Antonis or Tasia might be, usually no more than 50 yards away in a café, happily chatting to a pal.

However, touched as he is by that antiquated village life, it also irritates Kostas and especially when it comes to those Neanderthal tavernas that have no websites, where the proprietor, usually elderly, doesn’t speak a word of English, and has to do laborious mime or affably drag the tourist into the kitchen to point at what is on offer.  The old lady who runs such a restaurant would never show a menu to a Greek, but simply tells them what she has prepared today. However, she has to have something visible as a document for finicky foreign tourists, so there is a notional menu full of English mistranslations which I love and which Kostas really hates. One old monoglot proprietor I know has revithia down as ‘cheek pies’ instead of ‘chickpeas’ and sadly Kostas doesn’t find that hilarious at all but reprehensible. He points to the pleasing contrast of the new gourmet place up the road, where they have a gorgeous flash and twinkle website, the handsome young manager has trained as a Michelin chef in Thessaloniki, and where both he and his wife have excellent English to lure in all the foreigners. At which point I retort that the gourmet place is only open June to September, i.e. when all the money is to be made, but old Kyria Evangelitsa is loyally open 12 months of the year, many of those winter months with one or no customer per day. Kostas snorts and responds with default libertarian gusto apropos working to market forces, and accommodating to demand, meaning it makes no sense at all in 2018 to be open when no lucre is to be earned. And it gets even worse than that. He froths at the mouth when he says what lovely premises the old lady has, crying out for exploitation so to speak, including an upstairs balcony with a glorious and heartrending view of the lovely old bougainvillea-clad houses, that is almost never used on account of the fact that Evangelitsa, nearly always without any waitress help, is so old and rickety she doesn’t like wobbling and staggering upstairs, so encourages everyone to eat below deck.

So there you go. Picturesque as she is Evangelitsa is a worrying failure because she foolishly stays open when there are no customers, because  not only is she without a glimmering website in 4 languages, including Finnish, but she has she never touched a computer in her life, she offers no wifi to smartphone-staring clientele, and she gets someone with a baroque grasp of English to have gavros/ anchovy down  on her menu as ‘arogant fish’ (eh?), bekri meze as the startling ‘drunkard’s appetizer’ and kolokythia keftedes, meaning ‘courgette fritters’ as ‘pumpkin balls’ which sounds fruitily risque to me, I don’t know what you think.


The next post will be on or before Saturday 30th June


Some of Mike Leigh’s early movies were exercises in unremitting bleakness, or rather they showed just how miserable some people’s lives can be thanks to marital and other kinds of bullying. In Hard Labour (1973) an old charwoman played by Liz Smith is treated like dirt by her gruff, cantankerous husband, who in turn is bullied by an officious supervisor in his precarious job as a nightwatchman. Meanwhile the couple’s son, a gentle mechanic played by Bernard Hill (best known as Yozzer of Boys from the Blackstuff) is harassed by his pretentious nagging wife portrayed by that virtuoso veteran Alison Steadman (born 1946) who was also the wife of Mike Leigh from 1973-2001. That was preceded by the director’s first movie, made when he was 27, accurately entitled Bleak Moments, and summarised by one no-nonsense critic as ‘tortured semi-articulated anguish in suburban West Norwood’. However, Leigh’s is a complex and idiosyncratic talent, and even in the 70s he was capable of laugh out loud farce, best exemplified by everyone’s favourite, Nuts in May (1976). Here Steadman plays the gormless and submissive Candice-Marie married to the insufferable Keith (Roger Sloman, born 1946) both of them into spartan camping, the pious study of local history and fossil geology, not to speak of chirruping tuneless folk songs together and driving everyone around them mad. By contrast, my own Leigh favourite is the flawless 1993 Naked which is a fearlessly raw and uncompromising account of a young Mancunian vagabond at large in faceless nocturnal central London. The vagabond Johnny is played with impeccable brilliance by David Thewlis, born 1963, and his ranting apocalyptic eloquence (he knows vast chunks of Revelation by heart), and even more, his sexual and emotional neediness, are, I would agree, shocking and disturbing, but not in the last analysis bleak, for there are numerous moments of redeeming black comedy, and Johnny is anything but self-pitying.

Leigh has made 2 films overtly celebrating human happiness, both of them released close together over almost a 50-year career: Happy Go Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). The first one starred  Leigh regular, Sally Hawkins (born 1976) as a London primary school teacher perkily called Poppy, and idealistically portrayed as cheerful and kindly no matter what. At the start of the film, when someone is rude to her in a shop, she smiles and bears no grudge, and right after that, when her bike is pinched, her only sadness is that she didn’t get to say goodbye to it properly, so that even at this early stage one wonders if she is too good to be true. By that I mean if it weren’t for the dramatic foil of her incredibly disturbing driving instructor played to perfection by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) the film would be so sinewless, it might all but disappear.  Poppy’s monotonal happiness is a kind of rosy childlike innocence and much of her dialogue is a chuckling entirely harmless tit for tat banter. I think this is a significant Leigh statement, because in the film I will concentrate on, Another Year, we get almost an identical persona in the shape of Katie, the girlfriend of the son of the central happy couple, jovially if ironically named as Tom and Gerri. The husband, a geologist played by Jim Broadbent (born 1949) has had a long and happy marriage with Gerri (Ruth Sheen, born 1952) who works as a counsellor attached to a medical practice, and their only real worry is their son Joe, played by Oliver Maltman, who also had a part in Happy Go Lucky. Joe works as a solicitor specialising in housing problems, but is very tight lipped about personal matters, so they have no idea if he has a girlfriend, much less if he is happy or not. Eventually he springs a girlfriend on them by literally hiding and leaping out from behind the door with her, much to everyone’s hilarity. Katie has a demanding job as a residential social worker in an Old Peoples’ Home, and she like Poppy is cheerful, positive and bristling with light-hearted and inconsequential repartee. So already we perceive that happiness is frequently linked to a caring and selfless profession (social work, primary school teaching and counselling) and that when it comes to the younger end, Katie and Poppy, they banter and sustain themselves and cheer their often doleful and problematic friends by a sort of medicinal light-heartedness. This apparent conviction on the part of the director is made even more overt when twice during the film Gerri says with deep feeling to various friends who ask about Joe’s girlfriend (and, remember, with the authority of a counsellor):

‘She is lovely. She is really lovely.’

The finest acting on view is right at the start, where Imelda Staunton is a depressed insomniac housewife, interviewed first by her GP and subsequently by colleague Gerri. With her facial muscles alone, and barely any dialogue, Staunton portrays a whole nuanced range of despair, anger, resentment and a twitching stoniness that refuses to tell anyone what is really upsetting her. She believes if she gets a few nights sleep she will be able to cope, and is openly contemptuous of Gerri digging away at any irrelevant personal issues. But this counsellor not only has problematic clients, she has problematic friends, and the other virtuoso acting is that of Lesley Manville (born 1956) who plays Mary, her GP secretary colleague and old family friend. And apropos Manville and Sheen, it is worth reminding ourselves here that Leigh has a pool of tried and tested actors who appear and reappear in his films, and which to a certain  extent explains the sustained excellence of much of his work. Manville was the decorous Scotswoman in the 2014 Turner and the posh Yuppie in High Hopes (1988) and likewise Sheen was the great artist’s put upon and estranged wife, and also the council gardener wife of Cyril the Marxist  motorcycle courier in the earlier movie. Likewise, you will recall Jim Broadbent was Andy the catering chef and would-be burger entrepreneur in the excellent 1990 Life is Sweet, and in that film, happy though he was in many ways, he had a severely bulimic daughter (Absolutely Fabulous’s Jane Horrocks, born 1964) who gorged herself in secret and never left her bedroom. You could say that sweet as Andy’s life was in some ways, he had a major and horrific problem at close quarters, whereas with Tom the problems are much more at a manageable distance in the shape of neurotic friends.

Dysfunctional Mary then is the foil to the marital contentment of Tom and Gerri, one of whose major consolations and joys is their allotment gardening which punctuates the film at regular points (the healing potential of allotments is indeed rammed home by the counsellor at various points, and she tells someone at one of her barbecues that he too should grow tomatoes for therapeutic purposes). Brittle and nervous Mary is divorced and lives in a poky flat, and would love to have a nice man but finding one who is not a rogue nor a liar, proves to be elusive. She drinks a great deal and often discerns sexual attraction in public places when none is there. Absurdly she has a crush on Joe who she remembers as a little boy, and prior to his dating Katie she flirts with him and keeps suggesting they meet up for a drink with or preferably without his Mum. Invariably half cut and slurring her words, she has a habit of inviting others to confide their closest secrets, as she is, she believes, a sensitive listener. She offers her confessional role to both counsellor Gerri who smiles ruefully, and to the counsellor’s son, who in fairness to Mary does in fact behave in an ambiguously playful manner with a woman very much older. In any event Mary is fecklessness personified, and she gets so drunk at dinner with Tom and Gerri she has to stay overnight and collapses fully clothed on the bed. Manville is excellent at portraying Mary’s bleary loneliness when she has to go home to her empty flat the next morning, and throughout the film this gifted actor has her character staring naively at the people around her, trying to work out what it is they have that she doesn’t, and how just possibly she might acquire the secret of happiness.

And just as Gerri has her hopeless female counterpart, so Tom has an unhappy old college mate Ken (Peter Wight, another Leigh regular, born 1950) an office worker who is well on the way to an early heart attack as he drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and gets no exercise. He lives up in Hull as does Tom’s morose and unhappily married brother Ronnie, and Ken travels down for the weekend by train clutching an armful of cans from the bar and a giant packet of tomato crisps. Once he’s arrived in London, the old mates indulge in boyish horseplay with Tom leaping on Ken’s back just as Ken later shrieks and disconcerts Tom when he is making a careful shot in a friendly golf match.  Worryingly Ken has reached an impressively advanced state of bachelor piggery, for as he snorts up his food like a hoover (Tom is a gourmet cook) he is both swilling beer and glugging wine alternately. Later he admits his perennial loneliness, his hatred of his job, the fact that his favourite occupation of sitting in a pub is ruined these days by noisy and arrogant kids. Then drunk he breaks down as he remembers the death of a close friend, and Tom is so concerned he suggests that to lift his spirits they should go walking together in the Peak District in the autumn, stopping over in country pubs along the way. But Ken is a lost cause, and agrees to the pubs but not to any walking, something obviously beyond him by this stage. There follows a set piece where his hosts celebrate his arrival with a barbecue, and which dizzy Mary arrives at 3 hours late. Like many unhappy people, she believes that a single novel thing might change her life completely, and in this case, she acquires a little car very cheap from 2 dubious brothers who insist on being paid in cash. However she hasn’t driven since 1984, so the insurance is steep and add to that that coming to Tom and Gerri’s by tube for years, has meant she got completely lost in her car. While she swiftly homes in on still single Joe, hopeless Ken decides that he and Mary might make two happily united lost causes, and makes futile attempts to gain her attention. Instead Mary treats Ken very rudely and spends her time running away from him, just as when she later discovers Joe has a girlfriend, she is so shocked and put out she treats Katie with a blatant aggression and incurs Gerri’s indignation as a result.

The scene then changes dramatically to up north, for Tom’s sister in law has died suddenly, and the son Carl having broken off with both parents, Tom and Gerri go up to organise the funeral on brother Ronnie’s behalf. Ronnie is played by the reliably saturnine David Bradley (born 1942), well known for his Harry Potter and Game of Thrones parts, as well as his TV Dickens and stage King Lear. Ronnie is a Neanderthal Northerner at his worst, monosyllabic and borderline mute, and having been mothered all his marriage by his wife, he allows Tom to take over the catering for the funeral tea. At the cremation ceremony his ranting and alienated son Carl (played by Martin Savage) arrives late and he shouts embarrassingly at Ronnie for not delaying the service. Tom eloquently defends his brother, but Carl is unappeasable and even confronts his cousin Joe, nastily accusing him of staring at him. He also says at the funeral tea that his Dad didn’t love his Mum, and he briskly orders the neighbours who have come to pay their respects to get out. Tense as this showdown sounds, I was waiting for Carl pace classic Leigh to turn truly and squirmingly volcanic, instead of which it all turned to anti-climax and he stormed out to buy a bottle of wine and that was the last we saw of him.

The final section of the film reaches a kind of rounded conclusion but by an initially unpredictable route which ultimately for me turns formulaic. Tom invites his bereaved brother to come and spend a week or two with them, so that the mute man from Hull is transposed to leafy London where he sits alone watching the telly, apathetic enough to refuse an invite to his brother’s allotment. While the happy couple are out planting their tomatoes, hopeless Mary suddenly turns up unannounced, nursing a terrible hangover. Her car had predictably fallen to bits and the £20 the salvage garage gave her she had spent on a bottle of champagne.  Faced with stony Ronnie for company and no one else, anyone but Mary would have gone home, but instead she worms her way in where she finds herself chatting doggedly to the hawklike mute. She asks him a string of kindly questions but receives either monosyllables or a paralysing silence. Then bearing in mind both his bereavement and her own confessional skills, she comes out with the truly astonishing:

“Would you like a hug?”

Even this evinces no surprise in basilisk Ronnie, so that eventually she begs time out and lies down on the couch for a remedial snooze. At which point the happy couple return from the allotment, and for once Gerri loses her cool and reproves her hopeless friend in a way I simply did not believe of any credible counsellor. She is at first huffy and then accuses Mary of ‘letting her down’ but unless I was missing something, the only crimes Mary had actually committed were to turn up unannounced to see an old friend, and to be in a very low way emotionally. Surely no counsellor on earth would come out with that guilt-inducing formula, as in therapeutic terms it is the authoritarian parent reproving the adapted child, and you would wonder why a bright and clued up man like Leigh who writes as well as directs his films, would not know as much. In any event, after Mary’s wretched tears and contrite apologies, she is allowed to stay for tea, where she now observes 2 happy couples, Tom and Gerri and Joe and Katie, so vividly in contrast to herself and wooden Ronnie. The last thing Gerri had said to her was as a matter of urgency to go and see a counsellor and the film concludes with her staring diagnostically at everyone who is happy and wondering what on earth it is they are so privileged to possess and that she is not.