IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

The most dramatic misperception I’ve ever experienced in my life, was almost exactly 30 years ago in the spring of 1990, when I was a youth of 39, didn’t need glasses for short or long distances, and had perfect hearing. I, my late wife Annie, and daughter Ione then 9 months old, were living in a very fitting location inasmuch as it had a strange hallucinatory identity, for it went by the name of the Debatable Lands, meaning where the English and Scots fought over the demarcation of the Border in the 16th century. Or to be more precise (and just to refute the heroic Carlisle Tourist Office account), where the Border Reivers whose favourite currency was stolen animals rather than bitcoins, raped, murdered, pillaged, stole each other’s cattle, and just to round things off nicely, burnt down each other’s farmsteads. We were renting a very old farmhouse in the far north east tip of Cumbria, about a mile from the Border where the latter followed the path of the much lamented and highly scenic old Waverley railway line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and which also paralleled the route of the river Esk. The village we lived in, Penton, had a preposterous identity as it was composed of four separate hamlets all about 2 miles apart, some of whose names could not be located on any available map. There was Catlowdy where the Post Office and only shop were soon to close; then en route to the border village of Newcastleton, Roxburghshire was Bushfield, composed exclusively of forestry cottages… and between these poles was Penton itself comprising the railway station that had been closed for 20 odd years, and a small and touching riverside picnic area called Penton Linns. Half way between Penton and Bushfield was Nicholforest which subtended the handsome eponymous church and the imposing new village hall, and which is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as ‘The Nickle Forest’. Many a map pinpointed Catlowdy and nothing else, so that the parent which is to say generic village of Penton where we lived apparently did not exist…

So it was that my 1990 hallucination happened on the usually trafficless road from Nicholforest church to the renovated railway station, both of which emphatically and tangibly existed that pleasant spring day, as much as myself and my 9-month-old daughter who I had in a pushchair, and whose locomotion usually encouraged her to have an extended afternoon snooze. For suddenly I saw before me at some 200 yards distance, a quite inexplicable vision. It would seem to be some bizarre reciprocal analogue of myself and Ione, inasmuch as I perceived a small child of say 8 to 10 years old was sitting on an armchair plumb in the middle of this remote North Cumbrian backroad and was facing my daughter and me. At first, I thought this furniture object was static, until no I realised it was intermittently and clumsily being propelled along in my direction. Weirder still, immediately behind the seated child was either what looked like a walrus (!) or an Old English Sheepdog which had its chin resting squarely on the back of the chair. I should point out at this stage that I hadn’t been drinking, nor was I on any medication or psychedelic stimulant, whilst also sheepishly confiding that the floridity of my vision does not end there. On either side of the sofa, which item is of course not as a rule propelled unlicensed along the public highway by a Lewis Carroll animal, were what seemed to be a pair of custodial or perhaps I mean heraldic flamingos.

Beat that, is all I can say at this point…

As I moved with extreme hesitation towards this Debatable Lands vision, after some 100 yards the mirage resolved itself into something a good deal more intelligible, albeit still very much an epistemological rarity. For a start it wasn’t a sofa that I was looking at, but a capacious wheelchair that was in the middle of the road and trundling towards me, a vehicle that was broader than the run of the mill kind, given that its occupant, an elderly and short lady was a bit on the stout and billowing side. The Alice in Wonderland walrus cum sheepdog I soon learnt was simply her old husband, who was white haired and had an enormous beard, and he was in the habit of regularly stooping down to chat with her, so that from a distance it seemed as if his walrus and/or Old English fizzog was permanently flush with her chair.

Nor were the flamingos flamingos, for they were in fact two beautiful peacocks, in themselves permanent exquisite hallucinations, two majestic pets kept by the gamekeeper who worked on the estate that this old couple lived on in a peppercorn rent cottage. The wheelchair lady fed them with the choicest of titbits, which obviously explained why the pair of them were following the old couple like ceremonial courtiers. The couple did not work for the estate, but as Harriet and Joe eventually explained to me the estate was looking for loyal tenants, long stay and reliable, not fly by night kids who would be here for a month or two at most. Then, after she had complimented the touching beauty of my sleeping daughter, Harriet told me from her wheelchair:

“Long stay alright.”

“Are you?” I asked her in all ignorance.

“You betcha! I ain’t going anywhere in the next five minutes …”

The next post will be on or before Friday 14th February

ANGRY WOMEN AND ANGRY SONS

ANGRY WOMEN AND ANGRY SONS

The 2009 movie I Killed My Mother by French Canadian Xavier Dolan (born 1989) which received 3 Cannes Awards and a standing ovation, is remarkable in several ways.  Aside from the provocative title (don’t worry, the teenage protagonist Hubert, a part autobiographical creation, and played by Dolan himself, doesn’t actually kill his Mum) there is the fact the director was only 19 when he made it. Though bear in mind in this context, that there have been at least two major French Canadian artistic prodigies in the last couple of generations. The acclaimed novelist Marie-Claire Blais (born 1939) author of A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and Tete Blanche, two harrowing studies of lonely childhoods, made her debut aged 19 in 1959 with that incendiary autobiographical work, Mad Shadows. As for inordinately youthful film directors, we would need to look across to Iran, where the miraculously talented Samira Makhmbalaf (born 1980) made her poignant masterpiece about two incarcerated children, which was based on real events, The Apple, when she was all of 17.

Xavier Dolan’s debut is equally outstanding for the painfully explosive exchanges between the son aged 16 and his late-forties mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval, born 1960) where clearly Hubert loves and hates her with an equal intensity. As he puts it:

‘If anyone hurt my mother in any way, I would kill them. I would, I would kill them. But the fact is, there are hundreds of people I know who I like more than I like my mother.’

Chantale is a single parent as her husband Richard vanished when Hubert was small, unable to cope with the mundane demands of parenthood. He sees Hubert only at Christmas and Easter, and when the rows between mother and son reach boiling point, she slyly challenges him to go and live with his father. That is never going to happen of course, and perhaps explains why Hubert’s rage is often so volcanic. The exhausting dynamic is illustrated vividly at the start of the film, where she is driving him to his Montreal school and en route to her busy office job is both eating her breakfast and applying make-up. Hubert tells her the cream cheese at the corner of her mouth is disgusting to behold, and orders her bit by bit to remove it, so that in effect he turns into a tyrannical parent admonishing a child in the form of his mother. He also berates her for putting make-up on while driving as it is so dangerous. Pushed to the limits by his humourless nagging, she responds that he is just like his Dad, haughty and arrogant and considering himself better than everyone else. This is true as far as it goes, for when the next day she kindly asks him how his day has gone, aside from contemptuously lecturing her on the feebleness of her small talk, he says all the other schoolkids are illiterate morons…

As they row in the car, we are mostly on Chantale’s side, and when she says she is not just a machine for making meals and washing laundry, we can hear the authentic tones of the routinely if invisibly oppressed. In the end she kicks him out and orders him to walk the rest of the way to school. There he rapidly gets his own back when requested by his teacher Ms Clouthier (Suzanne Clement, born 1969) to survey-style quiz his parents about their jobs and work routines. He tells Julie Clouthier truthfully that he never sees his Dad, and as for his mother, she is dead.  Chantale learns of this monstrous lie the following day, and actually storms into the class room, saying she wants a word with him outside:

‘Do I look like I’m fucking dead?’ she shouts at the assembled pupils.

This is where director Dolan shows his class, which is to say his even-handedness in terms of the petty selfishness and embarrassment factors. Hubert is not only humiliated by his Mum’s ranting in front of his peers, but by the fact she is wearing a mad and fluffy white hat that adds 20 years to her. Later she is seen sporting a blue sweater with a bright orange winding creeper pattern on it. Worse still, when he comes home excitedly to say he has a solution to their problems, because he and his friend Antonin (Francois Arnaud, born 1985) will rent a flat together, she asks him to delay the discussion while she watches her favourite awful quiz show. This distraction is responsible for her vaguely agreeing to his plan for independence (his grandmother has left him money, so he can afford it) but then the next day, still watching the rubbish quiz show, she retracts her permission and says it’s crazy letting a 16 year old kid live away from home. Her fickleness drives Hubert insane of course, so that he rushes out and seeks out Julie Clouthier, and ends up spending the night at her house. The teacher is reluctant to have him there for obvious professional reasons, but she is moved by his plight as she herself has not spoken to her own father for a decade. Hubert also has a precocious literary talent and Julie is submitting one of his essays for an important competition on his behalf. At one point she rests her hand rather too long on his shoulder, and we wonder whether she is attracted to her very handsome pupil, and this again is where our teenage director has kept some of his thematic aces up his sleeve.

So far, we have seen Hubert and the equally handsome Antonin smoking dope together in the latter’s bedroom, and his laid-back single mother Helene (Patricia Tubasne) the polar opposite of Chantale, looking on approvingly and offering them alcohol. Helene also has a strong line in gorgeous young men half her age as one-night stands, and they parade around naked while grinning at the two stoned schoolboys. Even better, she works for an advertising agency and invites the pair of them to come in and do an avant garde collage on its walls, in the style of Jackson Pollock and his dripping technique. However, we are at least half way through the film before Helene surprises both Chantale and you and me, by coyly telling Hubert’s Mum that he and Antonin have been together, as an item, for 6 months now. Chantale had no inkling that her son was gay, so she is hurt by his secrecy and the fact that babbling Helene realises that Hubert has been keeping her in the dark.

Their reality becomes more explicit as after they have finished their avant garde dripping, Hubert and Antonin end up naked on the office floor and then have passionate sex. All of which notional personal liberation fades into perspective, when Hubert’s gruff dad Richard (Pierre Chagnon) invites him to his house at short notice. His fatherly embrace is stiff and perfunctory for he has also secretly invited Chantale there, as the pair of them have been plotting their son’s future. Because of his terrible school report, they are sending him to a boarding school out in the country, noted for its regime of discipline and hard work. Hubert of course goes berserk at this point and commences a four letter tirade against his unfeeling Dad, the one who never comes near him but is engineering his future by sending him to the equivalent of a country jail.

‘Fuck you, you motherfucker!’

Richard moves threateningly towards him, but of course at 16 years old there is nothing Hubert can do, if both parents are determined to have him incarcerated. When he enters the fearsome school, it proves to be a mixed bag. There is discipline right enough, as incredibly the pupils are penalised for handing their assignments in too slowly at the end of the class. Nevertheless, Hubert starts an affair with an attractive schoolmate called Eric, who sneaks him out to a nightclub where the pair of them take some speed. Cue Hubert ending up back at his mother’s house high and gabbling and ecstatic and repeatedly telling Chantale how much he loves her. She says she loves him too, but sends him back determinedly to school, and the next day he is badly beaten up by 2 homophobic pupils. He then succeeds in running away, for Antonin turns up with his mother’s car, but as he drives his lover away he tells Hubert that he is completely selfish. Then after a pause adds:

“But I love you.”

Still on the run, Hubert makes a second visit to Ms Clouthier, where she stresses how dangerous it if for her to have him there. Julie then reveals two significant things. That her stern old Dad who she hadn’t spoken to for ten years, had suddenly written to her offering reconciliation. More important, she is also leaving her teaching job and will be travelling the world with a friend, starting tonight as it happens. So, this is goodbye for herself and Hubert…and she has no idea when she will return to the school if ever.

In the meantime, Chantale gets a phone call from the unctuous boarding school headmaster, who informs her that her son has eloped. The fugitive has also left a note saying that he can be found at his Kingdom.

‘What is the Kingdom, Madame?’

‘He means the house by the sea where we lived when he was small.’

The head then makes a catastrophic mistake by pointing out that Chantale being a single mother, perhaps Hubert needs a male presence in the house to instil some needful discipline. There is a pause of perhaps a second until Chantale ignites and delivers the most enjoyable rant in the film, outdoing even Hubert at his most ferocious. She tells the teacher that she herself grew up with a manic-depressive mother who spent half her life in mental hospital. Then came a husband who was a coward and couldn’t face grown up responsibilities, and ran away. She meanwhile has been getting up at 5.30 every morning for 15 years to get to her exhausting job. As for the headmaster with his Bugs Bunny tie and his cheap and sexist insinuations, what the fuck would he know? Why, he is the kind of idiot who would put red in with white in the washing machine…

‘Do you really like pink underwear, you moron? Fuck you, you motherfucker! And if I don’t get a refund for the school fees within a week I will be round there at your office and I will…’

Afterwards she drives round to the Kingdom, the beautiful seascape of Hubert’s infancy, and she finds her son and Antonin together on the beach. The film ends by switching without preamble to some crackling home movie where a beautiful child is playing joyfully with his handsome mother, and the tenderness between mother and son is manifestly eternal and indestructible

The next post will be on or before Friday February 7th

CHARITY BEGINS SOMEWHERE

CHARITY BEGINS SOMEWHERE

A week ago I was in a charity shop in North London that was staffed by a single elderly East European gentleman, and virtually all its contents were completely inaccessible. The books were stacked on shelves at head height, and went up to about 10 feet, and as no step ladders were provided, you would either need brilliant nay freakish long sight, or a good pair of binoculars, or even a telescope to read the titles. But then the place was so badly illuminated, your nifty optical instruments might not have functioned, and add to that that a huge immovable carousel with crime paperbacks was lodged in front of and only four inches from the book shelves, so there was no way of getting nearer the focus of your interest.

I am as you’ve probably guessed a second hand books and second hand DVD man, and the DVDs likewise were stacked at a remote altitude, but far flung as they were, I was able to spot the familiar covers of those blockbuster films that monotonously people every single charity shop. Stop me if you haven’t also spotted in Oxfam and Shelter and Scope, industrial quantities of the following: Taken (2008) the action thriller scripted by Luc Besson and starring Liam Neeson, an ex-secret service man whose daughter is abducted in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers; Heat (1995) another bluff one-word titled blockbuster, with De Niro, Pacino and Val Kilmer, which is all about the cop who decides to stop a legendary criminal busy planning his last pre-retirement heist. Finally, of similar historical longevity, and with a two-word title is the 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky US comedy about an awkward Idaho schoolkid and his attempts to help his friend win the class presidency. The hero Napoleon’s grandma breaks her coccyx in a quadbike accident, so although I haven’t seen it, it does sound a mite less formulaic than other transatlantic high school ‘romps’. Though to be sure, not all of the most popular charity shop films are formula thrillers or goofy comedies, which is to say that on occasion quality really can shine through, and especially if grotesque violence is part of the mix. So it is that with Javier Bardem as the bloodless psycho toting the lethal gas gun, the DVD of that fine movie the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men (2007) featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the old-fashioned principled cop, is absolutely everywhere, often 3 copies per charity shop. The same goes for the excellent Amelie (2001) a stereoscopic parable about the comic arduousness of finding real love. Starring Audrey Tautou, whose remarkable talent is as much in her ingenious facial mobility as her words, it might well have been a worldwide hit, but for once, with its idiosyncratic and stylised direction, it actually deserved to be.

I am as you know a world cinema freak, and you might say subtitles are my middle name, but sad to say in certain parts of London that conspicuously are chockablock with top notch posh girls’ grammar schools (whose pupils might notionally wish to learn what e.g. the French and the Italians think about love in all its contradictory aspects) there is not a single subtitled film in the charity shops. High Barnet for example is a prosperous middle-class area and has about a dozen charity outlets, none of which boasts even one foreign movie, not even Amelie. Yet by inscrutable perversity, in other affluent areas where they do actually contravene the stereotypical Brexit mentality, inasmuch as they boast a single foreign movie on their Oxfam or their Shelter shelves, it is nearly always the same one, a brilliant but shocking apocalyptic satire on human greed called Delicatessen directed in 1991 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It is about a leering butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, born 1946) with a busy turnover in handymen as he keeps killing them and recycling them as food. Why I ask myself do these parochial and clearly chauvinistic areas, go for of all things, a tale about a gruesomely homicidal butcher, at least as frequently as they do for the charming and elfin Amelie, someone who has a not a trace of violence in her person and indeed is often taking on bullies and monomaniacs who try to dominate others?

The next post will be on or before Friday 24th January

LONDON LANGUAGE

LONDON LANGUAGE

There is a sandwich bar here in Hackney which calls itself ‘Freshly Sandwiches’, and that must surely be run by a foreigner, possibly a Turk or a Kurd who own many of the catering and supermarket businesses in this area. The point is that adverbs like ‘freshly’ are so called, because they ‘add to’ a verb, and of course in Freshly Sandwiches there is no verb. The proprietors have obviously confused Fresh Sandwiches with Freshly Made Sandwiches (‘made’ being a verb) and have produced a delightful fusion phrase, which let’s face it has a superior sound to it, as, to call your carry out joint ‘Fresh Sandwiches’ is to be rather on the prosaic and anticlimactic side, a bit like christening your handsome little son My Boy instead of say Benny or Montague.

Not that long ago, Hackney was regarded as a deprived area, so that businesses using faulty grammar and spelling were to be expected and tolerated. Nearby Hampstead, of course, home of the glitterati and literati, is a horse of another colour, so it was bemusing last week to see a shop front, a newsagent’s, where the hallowed area was boldly spelt Hamstead, a solecism little short of cultural treason. It reminded me of my native Cumbria, where for at least 20 years a rural slaughterhouse in a small village outside Carlisle, was signposted by the County Council Highways Department as an Abbatoir, which always made me think of a cross between the saccharine pop group and the Hebrew word for father. Being a vegetarian, I found such a ludicrous misspelling inordinately insensitive and unpleasant, and I kept thinking of penning my indignation to the same Department, but after 20 years of prevarication, someone else got there first, and now at last they have the rustic charnel house properly designated.

With London shop signs, it is not just typos like ‘confectionary’ and ‘stationary’ (used as a noun) that abound, there is also a fondness for tongue in cheek word play, frequently related to the specific metropolitan area. Hence in Brondesbury, there is a café called Brondes Age, and ingeniously in Kew Gardens the optician is called EyeQ, in line with umpteen local businesses revealing the chic letter Q as opposed to Kew in their title. Yesterday I visited the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury area (part of Islington) for the first time in my life, where I saw more of the same compulsive word play, though this time of the entertainingly laboured variety. On a plaque outside a pub called Doyle’s Tavern I beheld the following ingenious poem:

Alcohol is not in my vodkabulary

However, I looked it up on whiskeypedia

And learned if you drink too much

It’s likely tequilya

That last word saves this cautionary tale from jovial sentimentality, and the spelling of whiskey confirms that Doyle is or was an Irishman.

Further down the road, I was truly shocked to see that right in the middle of the community is a huge prison with all the usual trappings of barred windows and coiled wire at its highest reaches. I had no idea that prisons could be plonked down in the public eye so to speak, nor that this notorious one was 2 minutes walk from an overground station. HM Pentonville Prison is on the Caledonian Road, and it has a cheerful welcoming sign for the general public, and one wonders if its inmates ever see the same salutation on arrival. If they do, they are also likely to see something even more startling, for directly opposite the prison on the same major thoroughfare, is an enormous café that is called, wait for it, The Break Out Café. A quick scan online reveals that the blackness of this title is well understood, as you read from one Brian C, ‘So I ended up at the Breakout Café, ironically because I had to go into prison. But only to run a training course thankfully…’ Meaning you were only a cheerily whistling day tripper, Brian, and could have sat there all day, a free man in the Break Out after your teaching was over, had you so wished.

As for myself, I’m so naïve I am genuinely surprised the authorities haven’t forced the café to call itself something else, as that jokey name seems to be treading the precarious unknown land between incitement and vicarious wishful thinking. Because of course, every time we watch a film where the criminal is fleeing to evade the relentless cops, we always want him or her to succeed, as on some primal level we always identify with the panicking hunted rather than the determined hunter…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 16th January

CYPRUS FOR BEGINNERS

CYPRUS FOR BEGINNERS

My daughter Ione, her partner Ado and I, have recently spent the week before Christmas in Cyprus, my very first visit to what is regularly called the gateway to the Middle East. Meanwhile, if you’ve lived 6 years on a tiny Cycladean island like I have, you are bound to find the Greek half of Cyprus where we stayed, a radically different experience, and to feel as if your cosmopolitan registers are continually out of synchrony. For a start the place is full of an unusually random assortment of foreigners, with a scattering of expat Brits (some of the forlorn and gabbling barfly variety) but many more émigré Russians, so much so that nearly all shop signs are in Greek, English and Russian, and some in Russian only. For reasons I could never understand, even when explained at length, there are an inordinate number of Punjabis, working mostly as waitresses, and even as proficient chefs in Lebanese restaurants, some of them with good English, and some of them with barely any of the lingua franca, or much Greek come to that. Time and again in cafes, whether one spoke to the young Punjabi women in English or Greek, they did not understand, and had to go and get their Cypriot colleagues to translate. Given that they barely know a single handy tourist language, the obvious question is why are they taken on, and the cynical and half accurate view is that they undercut the locals when it comes to wages, and thus do them out of a job. In which patriotic connection, Greek Cypriots are proud to be precisely that, and politely correct you when you ask them in Greek are they Greek, by which of course you mean are they Greek-speaking, not are they Hellenes. As a relevant side issue, approximately 70% of the people of Larnaka, where we were based, evidenced numb incomprehension when I spoke to them in Greek, and more or less obliged me to speak in English. The other 30% had no problems at all with my admittedly home-made doppio, paradosiaki Greek, and I had an extremely lively conversation with a bespectacled ice cream seller by the side of the salt lake near the airport, just possibly because I was his only customer he informed me for the last 4 hours. I don’t think it too fanciful to evidence a modest amount of combative paranoia at this point, for over the years I have experienced the same thing in France, Germany and Greece (though interestingly never in good old Portugal), where they have frowned at my use of their language, feigned incomprehension, and insisted on speaking English. Perhaps not always, but it can at times turn into a dreary, not to say puerile game of irritating one-upmanship, where God knows why, they really like to see you one down.

Cyprus, as everyone knows, is half Greek and half Turkish, thanks to the mainland Turkish junta intervening in 1974, when the lookalike Greek junta of the day tried to annex the whole of the island to Greece (enosis or union as it is called). There were atrocities and bloody massacres on both sides, with massive displacement of citizens on ethnic lines, so that the Turkish Republic of Cyprus (TRNC) has very few Greeks left, and ditto with the few Turks living in the south. Though travel between the 2 halves is relatively easy these days, it is still the case that Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a legal entity by Turkey, and if you want to fly there, it has to be via Istanbul. More colourfully, as the TRNC has no extradition treaty with the UK, it was for long the case that loot-laden British criminals could go and live there lordly gargling G and Ts by their majestic villa pools, and be completely safe from the arms of the law.

Larnaka is a handsome and attractively positive city with an exhilarating sea front marked at the far end with an Ottoman castle and behind it the beautiful old Grand Mosque, the Buyuk Camii, which is still used for worship by the town’s few Muslims. Another thing to praise is the inordinate number of small independently run art galleries, often showcasing mainland Greek artists as well as Cypriots, and with the standards on display, for this relatively small city, being surprisingly and movingly high. Away from the immediate centre, predictably most of the architecture is modern faceless suburbs, interrupted by supermarkets or often enormous kiosk peripteros, and the ubiquitous souvlaki joints. There are lots of restaurants in Larnaka, the bulk of them serving Cypriot cuisine which tends towards the grilled meat of kebabs and souvlaki, and vegetarian main options invariably resolve to the native halloumi cheese, which for the first time in my life I found myself getting sick of. If you are used to the generous variety of Greek meze and ladhera, things like tomato and courgette keftedes and fava bean puree, gigantes and yemista stuffed tomatoes, you will be seriously disappointed by the Cypriot option of either tzatziki or a plate of olives. As well as competing for lunch and dinner customers, most of the promenade eateries offer bargain inclusive breakfasts which range from the hideous Full English to a Cypriot version of fried eggs, mushrooms, olives, grilled halloumi and salad, usually accompanied by toast, butter and jam. A winter season indolence can sometimes manifest itself in the latter context, for one day my Cyprus breakfast had everything present apart from the customary 2 butter pats. I said as much to the waitress who agreed there was indeed none, but added it was presently defrosting and would be ready for me in an hour’s time. As I gasped my astonishment, and echoed, an hour! Ione urged me to do something about it, and get some butter from a shop. Cue my sweating a good half hour trying 4 supermarkets over a mile-long trek, before a Polish place yielded 4 pats at a 10 humble cents each. By that time of course both coffee and toast were stone cold, but better to eat cold buttered toast than its unspeakable dry analogue.

The other curse of lazy Cypriot restaurants is the prevalence of frozen as opposed to freshly made chips/French fries. One or two breakfast places boastfully chuck them in as part of their Full English or Full Cypriot munificence, so that you have a pleasingly mountainous plateful on the lines of those scoffed by the gluttonous Three Bears in The Beano circa 1968. Yet it is impossible to exaggerate how depressing frozen chips can be on the tenor of an otherwise promising morning. To start the day with them is even worse than ending the day ditto, for it is a kind of gnawing prelude to nameless discomforts, frustrations and anticlimaxes that will unerringly keep coming your way, for no other reason but plain existential cussedness and to teach you the important moral lesson that no matter how hard you try, you will never really be in control of your life, not when someone is prepared to ruin your eggs and mushrooms by the addition of chip shaped Polyfilla. You can of course try making them palatable with the addition of Heinz tomato sauce, but you will have about as much success with that as you would by rubbing your inner thighs with the same item prior to anticipated bedroom intimacy.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 11th January

JOY IN DUBLIN

JOY IN DUBLIN

I have been to Dublin five times in all, and the first occasion was on a day trip from Northern Ireland in 1965 when I was 14 years old. My parents and I were having a week’s holiday sponsored by the Maryport (West Cumbrian) Cooperative, in the lush and attractive coastal resort of Whitehead, Co Antrim. The single memory I have of the Dublin of 54 years ago, was our inexplicably wandering round a huge store full of Roman Catholic religious art and devotional sculpture, intended no doubt for both the pious home and the august church. We ourselves were token Low Church of England so it was an extremely foreign world to us, and the connected association is of a testy woman of around 50 with a severely lined face shouting at and then clouting the small boy she was in charge of in the same shop. The next visit was in 1987, when my late wife Annie and I stayed with a friend of hers whose brother, the epitome of shy modesty, is an acclaimed Irish poet. We were also there to celebrate my 50th in 2000, then with teenage daughter Ione in a week close to Christmas in both 2004 and 2005, until fast forwarding exactly 14 years, Marta and I found ourselves renting a top floor flat for the weekend, near St Stephen’s Green.

In the early 2000s, central Dublin and especially O’ Connell Street was notable for its many cheap food stalls, selling the likes of tasty spiced potatoes and beef and vegetable chili. Those stalls have sadly disappeared, as have the odd little barricaded booze shops up the sidestreets where you and the assistant were separated by reinforced security glass, hence communicated via microphone and had to shout, rather than genteelly utter, those delectable words Malbec and Merlot. Gone too is the excellent Korean restaurant where in 2004 you ate your succulent prawns on revolving metal plates, and where everyone but myself, Annie and Ione were Korean. Now, as in many UK cities, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai are the star cuisines, and these eateries vary from Eat As Much As You Like for 8.99, to beautifully designed palaces where the prices are usually 50% more than in central London.

One thing that doesn’t change, thank God, is the Abbey Theatre, brainchild of the Irish Revival whose leading lights were the poet WB Yeats (1865-1939) and Lady Gregory (1852-1932) the latter despite her off-putting name also being a fine dramatist, specialising in the retelling of Irish myths, as with The Dragon, Shanwalla and Hanrahan’s Ghost. She and Yeats courageously courted scandal when in 1907 they put on The Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge (1871-1909) and all that week there was rioting by the outraged audience, so much so that some of the play had to be carried on as mimed dumb show. The spectators weren’t so much offended by the fact that boastful Christy Mahon who appears in a Mayo village, is hailed as a hero after claiming he’d killed his Dad with an axe (I riz im wit a loy!). Instead they were enraged by the single utterance of the word ‘shift’, in the incendiary sense of a woman’s night attire. This was denounced as the last word in rank obscenity, a vile insult to Irish womanhood and it took 500 Dublin police at one performance to calm the rioters down.

Marta and I went to the Abbey on Saturday to see the satirical farce Drama at Inish by Lennox Robinson (1886-1958) directed by the virtuoso Cal McCrystal. Robinson, though the son of a Protestant clergyman, was an Irish patriot and at one stage also a manager of the Abbey, conducting it on tours around the USA and elsewhere. At this point, I need  to explain that I have seen Irish dramas performed in the UK, as opposed to Ireland, on two occasions. One was the mordantly funny if heart-breaking Juno and the Paycock (1924) by Sean O’Casey (1880-1964) which I watched with my parents at the Oxford Playhouse in 1971, and the other was a dramatic adaptation of that very dark comic novel The Third Policeman written around 1939 by Flann O’ Brien (1910-1966). The latter I attended with Annie in a club theatre in York in 1979, and though both performances were excellent, at the risk of spelling out the obvious, I would emphasise that watching an atmospheric Irish play in an atmospheric Ireland really is a horse of another colour. For a start the Inish audience as witnessed gathering in the handsomely furnished bar before and during the interval, seemed far more relaxed and less self-conscious than most London theatregoers. More to the point, whenever you see an Irish play performed in Ireland you feel a sense of collective identity and memory, often allied to the national cohesion which comes about after centuries of political oppression at the hands of the Brits. English folk watching an English play in England, rarely feel anything akin to this identification, if only because they have experienced nothing like that historical tyranny. In the case of Inish, there is a delightful double inversion, as the 1933 play is about the sophisticated outside world entering a sleepy coastal town in Co Cork, and turning everything upside down as it confuses and pollutes things with its radical notions. Such novel and daring ideas can at times be accurately described as lethal. The whirlwind in question appears in the seemingly innocuous guise of the De La Mare Travelling Theatre Company, whose owner Hector de la Mare (Nick Dunning) is a gentleman with an English accent and an august delivery. Meanwhile as a kind of publicity stunt and to enhance his own standing in Inis, the local hotelier John Twohig (played with a fine trumpeting bonhomie by Mark O’ Regan) hosts the travelling actors for free, and although he has a supportive wife Annie (Helen Norton) John also has a moping son Eddie (Tommy Harris) who spends his time asking for the hand of a woman who apparently will never say yes. As it happens, de la Mare’s favourite repertoire is the highbrow drama of Ibsen and Chekov, and fittingly the impresario is bearded, behatted, wears a cape, his standard conversational mode being that of decorous ham acting. He brings along with him his co-manager and possible consort, Constance Constantia (Marion O’ Dwyer), a billowy lady of late middle age with another theatrical delivery, she who is also fond of jiggling her sizeable breasts to indicate emotional in the sense of dramatic power. Constance is a genteel boozer who when offered whiskey from the decanter and told to say when, only says it when her glass is brimming over. O’ Dwyer plays her farcical role with expert timing and a baritone boom, and the audience inevitably applauded her throughout.

The running gag is of course that Ibsen and Chekov are full of endless debates about the possible futility of life, so that some of the Inis townsfolk, who flock to the performances in droves, suddenly start to exhibit Ibsenesque and Chekovian behaviour. Formerly carefree provincials are observed to walk around looking inscrutably pained by life; stable and contented marriages begin to break up; people like pork butchers commence to contemplate, what is it they call it? mutters incredulous John Twohig, ‘suicide pacts’! What we have then with Inis is a seemingly guileless farce, with its ironic counterpart of intellectual pessimism, or perhaps another way to put it is we see simple Irish religiosity juxtaposed with Continental atheism and nihilism. The play is thus both very light and very deep, but believe me the most remarkable thing of all was that when it finished, instead of its cast doing a brief encore, every one of them from goateed De La Mare to the gormless policeman with his tiny part, commenced a wild and exhilarating but tightly structured ceilidh. To roaring traditional music, in expert sequence they jigged and leapt and waltzed, and even chucked in a bit of line dancing for good measure. Predictably, they had the audience helplessly clapping the timing, in a remarkable and moving orchestration of that artistic rarity I would characterise as Reciprocal or Mutual Joy. Which is to say that joy is and was the word in the Abbey that night…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 2nd January

LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

LOVE IN A WAR ZONE

Milcho Manchevski’s 1994 movie Before the Rain, which won the Golden Lion at Venice that year, and which is structured in three interweaving parts, begins with an idyllic vision of rural peacefulness, a cruel mirage if ever there was. It is late evening above a massive beautiful lake and we are in the rugged hills of Macedonia (currently the Republic of North Macedonia and before that and to placate the Greeks, FYROM, meaning the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). We are also in the vicinity of a remote Orthodox monastery where an old bearded abbot is chatting to a clean-shaven and handsome young monk called Kiril (played by French actor Gregoire Colin, born 1975) though the chatting is unilateral as Kiril has taken a vow of silence and not spoken a word for 2 years. Later we listen to the monks singing their resonant Macedonian Orthodox liturgy, which sounds very much like the Greek kind, and the air is ripe with transcendent peacefulness so it seems. But warning signs to the contrary are already apparent among the raucous little boys playing outside the monastery. They have found 2 wild tortoises, have tied sticks above their heads, and are urging them to charge and kill their opponent. Later these kids chance upon some discarded ammunition, so they light a fire and the bullets start up a ricocheting and deafening pyrotechnic display which delights them no end…

When Kiril gets into bed that night in his spartan wooden chambers, he immediately leaps out of his skin. There is someone in the bed, and though it looks like a young boy in his mid teens, it is in fact a girl with her hair cropped short. She is an ethnic Albanian called Zamira (played by Labina Mitevska, born 1975) who understands no Macedonian, and he likewise has no Albanian, and in any case is a deliberate mute. Nevertheless, she manages to communicate that she is a fugitive on the run from a bunch of local Slavs, as she had killed one of their goatherds with a pitchfork. The film which is in three interlocking sections entitled ‘Words’, ‘Faces’, ‘Pictures’ never explains why exactly she killed the Slav in her nearby village, but the best guess is that being at least twice her age he was molesting her or worse. The goatherd’s friends and relatives are in rapid pursuit, and very soon are battering on the door of the monastery, demanding to search for the Albanian ‘whore’. The old abbot demurs and urges them to turn the other cheek, but their gun-toting leader quotes Mosaic law and says no it must be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…

To put things in context, Macedonia is principally a Slav country, but with a substantial 25% Albanian minority. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics, Macedonia escaped the worst horrors of genocide evident in Bosnia and parts of Croatia, and only started to suffer serious ethnic tension in 1999, when adjacent Kosovo with its Albanian majority was invaded by the Serbs. This film is set somewhere in the early 1990s around the time of the Balkan War in Bosnia, and although there are no bloodbaths, there is no love lost between the Christian Slavs and the mostly Muslim Albanians, and especially in remote rural communities. When Kiril who is a supposedly sacrosanct priest, makes a mild attempt to restrain one of the vigilantes in his hunt for the ‘slut’, he is punched viciously in the face. The search party are a motley and unsavoury crew, including cousins of the murdered goatherd plus a rowdy and disturbed young thug who plays aggressive punk music on his Walkman and is trigger happy to boot. Just for the hell of it he blasts a little cat to pieces, and fires his gun off into the night when everyone else is trying to sleep. Despite a thorough search of Kiril’s quarters and the rest of the monastery, the invaders find nothing, and they decide to camp down outside for the night. At this stage, Kiril makes a crucial resolution regarding himself and his vocation, for he packs a battered suitcase and escapes with Zamira across the hills, and he also breaks his vow of silence and indicates that for her safety he will take her to the Macedonian capital of Skopje, or even to his uncle in England. To cap all that, he declares in Macedonian that he loves her, whereupon Zamira stares at him in surprise, then smiles and apparently understands.

The film’s director Manchevski (born 1959) is a Macedonian Slav who has spent much of his adult life in New York, where as well as penning memoirs and theoretical works he has made epic multilingual movies (typically in Macedonian, English, French and Albanian) which are structurally sophisticated and seem to prefigure directors like Inarritu and his 2006 Babel. Best known perhaps is the 2001 Dust starring Joseph Fiennes, that weaves a tapestry of narratives across centuries, and features a contemporary New York thief, as well as Macedonian revolutionaries under the Ottoman empire. One indicator of Manchevski’s impressive maturity as a film maker, is his rigorous even-handedness when it comes to political and social realities, and which is not always comfortable for the audience. For just as the two waifs Kiril and Zamira are successfully escaping from the Slav pursuers, they are surrounded by a group of rustic Albanians in their typical Shiptar hats, all of them armed and all of them furious with their relative Zamira who they are trying to rescue from the vigilantes.

“Christian scum!” snarls the old man who is Zamira’s grandfather, and one of his sons kicks Kiril to the ground and stands on his back.

The grandfather then starts slapping Zamira hard across the face, and tells her she is behaving like a whore when she is alone and unchaperoned with this Christian.

“I cut your hair to make you behave yourself! Do you want me to shave your head?”

Zamira tells him that Kiril risked his life by sheltering her in the monastery, so that her smileless grandfather relents and orders Kiril to disappear. The Slav monk who loves Zamira hesitates but several rifles are pointed at them, and fearing for her safety he moves off across the hills. The young girl can’t control herself then, but shouts out that she loves Kiril and races after him, ignoring all commands to return. At which point her brother blasts her with his huge automatic, and her grandfather indicates no more than a stern resignation as she lies dying on the grass with Kiril kneeling over her.

Such is the first section ‘Words’, and like the two that follow on, it is about 40 minutes long. The second, ‘Faces’ switches to the polar opposite of rural Macedonia, in the form of fashionable central London. We are now with a press photographer in her early thirties called Anne, played by the late Katrin Cartlidge (1961-2002) who died tragically young at only 41. Aside from being an award-winning Mike Leigh regular, Cartlidge is esteemed all over the Balkans, for in addition to working with Manchevski, she was in Danis Tanovic’s 2001 film about the Bosnian war No Man’s Land, which won a Best Foreign Film Oscar that year. Anne is in an unhappy marriage with Nick (Jay Villiers, born 1961, familiar from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and is also romantically involved with a celebrated war photographer called Aleksander who happens to be a Macedonian, and is portrayed by the Croatian, Rade Serbedzija, born 1946, one of Yugoslavia’s best known actors in the 70s and 80s. They meet up in London where Aleksander kisses her feverishly inside the taxi, then tells her that despite all his worldly success he doesn’t know what to do with his life. He is also consumed with guilt, as he happens once to have killed a man. Anne cries to hear this, but on pressing him learns that it is a guilt at one remove so to speak. Years ago, interviewing some revolutionary cadre in the Middle East, Aleksander had joked that he had nothing very exciting to show him, whereupon the swaggering captain had pulled a nearby prisoner out of his line, and shot him dead on the spot. Today Aleksander suddenly invites Anne to move to Macedonia and settle down with him, which of course she tells him is impossible, though she does not reveal one significant reason. That evening she is meeting in an expensive London restaurant with her husband Nick (they are currently living apart) where she is obliged to give him both good and bad news. She tells Nick that she is pregnant and by him, but as he forces celebratory champagne on her, and begs for reconciliation, she informs him that no, she wants a divorce. Nick is terribly upset and about to leave, when suddenly an altercation breaks out nearby. A bearded and arrogant foreigner in his forties, who is speaking some Balkan language, possibly Macedonian, instead of quietly paying his bill, starts shouting at the waiter and contemptuously flinging notes in his face. Before long things escalate, and the ranting customer starts viciously beating up the waiter and anyone else who tries to intervene. Finally, cursing angrily at everyone, the assailant is propelled out of the door, after which the silky old manager apologises humorously to his customers, and everything settles down. But ten minutes later the same man returns with a gun, and for a full five minutes starts blasting at everyone inside. Anne crouches down and screams her terror and when the gunman departs, gropes blindly for Nick on the glass strewn floor. Eventually she turns over a body, and beholds the face of her husband, which is a gory and shattered mess…

“Oh your face,” she gasps, in her choking grief. “Your face…”

‘Faces’ ends on that tragic note, just as ‘Words’ finishes with the young girl Zamira being grieved over by Kiril the former monk. The last section, ‘Pictures’, shows Aleksander hoping to find a meaning to his hectic life by returning to settle in Macedonia. His remote and primitive village is split into its Slav and Albanian halves, and the two have virtually nil contact.  On his walk from the bus to his ruin of a house, he is stopped by a long-haired gun-toting kid, unaware he is the villager who made it big as a leading war photographer. Aleksander seizes the weapon, then clouts the surly youth, but once reached the village he is rapturously welcomed by his relatives. Partying in earnest begins, and during the table conversation his cousin Zdrave remarks with disgust that the Albanians breed like rabbits. The next morning a divorced female cousin gets into his bed, but the new arrival is half dead from the celebrations and can barely stir. In any case, one very disturbing elephant in the room is that Aleksander is still emotionally attached to an Albanian woman Hana (Silvija Stojanovska, born 1960), recently widowed from her Albanian husband. He decides he will go and visit his teenage love and take presents for her children, so crosses to the Albanian side where he is greeted stonily by her father. As he shows his gifts for the grandchildren, the old man relents and shouts of Hana who is in the women’s quarters, to bring the guest some coffee and loukoumi. In the meantime Hana’s brother arrives and asks what the hell the Slav is doing here. His father orders him to shut up, whereupon he glares at Aleksander and calmly offers to slit his throat. Then Hana appears, looking statuesque and seemingly without emotion. She shows no signs of her teenage attachment, nor is she responsive to Aleksander’s gifts. Indeed, she has something far more pressing to tell him, which is that his cousin Zdrave has just kidnapped her young daughter Zamira. Zamira had stabbed one of the Slav goatherds, so they have taken her captive, and both she and Hana need Aleksander’s help. Can he go and talk to Zdrave, and get her daughter back before they kill her?

Aleksander proceeds to do just that, and as he enters Zdrave’s house and sees how young the captive is, he cannot hide his contempt.

“But she is just a child…”

Ignoring Zdrave, he takes Zamira’s hand and leads her out, just as if he was leading out any other child by the hand. His cousin blusters panicky warnings, but Aleksander keeps on going, until urged on by his friends, Zdrave lifts his automatic and shoots him dead. Unlike the endings of ‘Faces’ and ‘Words’ there is no one here to grieve over the dead hero Aleksander, who has sacrificed himself for a child. For terrified Zamira races off from the gang of Slavs, and as we learn in ‘Faces’, ends up hiding in a monastery where she is temporarily protected by a Macedonian monk. Aleksander who had felt painful guilt at indirectly killing a man, has sacrificed himself for what will only be a delayed death for the child called Zamira, albeit he was unable to foresee the cruelty of her future. And you will also note the ingenious and moving premise of this 3 part film, and reflect that it could have been ordered in any of 3 possible sequences, and to that extent perhaps Chronology and the Sequential are more like mirages than what we choose to call Realities.

The next post will be on or before Wednesday December 11th

BEGGARS AND BARGAINS

BEGGARS AND BARGAINS

Those who know me appreciate how much I like a bargain, and that I am an unashamed fan of charity shops, where I can regularly acquire some gem of world cinema on DVD for £1 (recently that flawless masterpiece Three Colours: Red by Kieslowski with Jean-Louis Trintignant), or world literature ditto (two weeks ago The Zafarani Files by the Egyptian genius, the late Gamal al Ghitani). I am even of such unbelievably low scruples that I like going into pound shops, where being a keen cook I can find bargain casserole tins for a pound apiece, meaning 5 of the buggers for a fiver or 10 for a tenner, catering quantities no less, now we’re talking eh. However, 2 days ago I truly excelled myself by discovering in a pound shop in Hackney a pristine and massive brand-new boxed DVD set, containing no less than six DVDs on the History of the Second World War, with a total playing time of 12 hours. The whole lot cost me a pound, meaning each DVD cost me 16p, which these days wouldn’t even buy you a bit of bubble gum. It is an American production (hence they refer to Ay-dolf Hitler), is full of rare archive footage, has an incisive and intelligent commentary, and is giving me an education and even making me ashamed of my relative ignorance. I thought for example that the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Nazis on the west and the traitorous Soviets on the east, was all over in 5 minutes, but not at all, the Poles kept on fighting bravely for as long as they possibly could, and with scant timely assistance from the Allies. Nor did I know that the hideous Josef Goebbels (1897-1945), Nazi propaganda minister and Final Solution enthusiast, was a rare Nazi inasmuch as he was highly educated and had a PhD in literature. He was also only 5 feet tall and had a congenital deformity, a severe limp due to childhood illness, which perhaps partly explains the rabid savagery of his demented antisemitism, PhD or not.

As I roam my favourite East London charity shops, I bump into 2 things on a regular basis, namely beggars and dogs, and of course sometimes the two are combined. There were only a handful of dogs on the Isle of Kythnos in the Greek Cyclades where I lived for 6 years, whereas London is bursting at the seams with them, especially if you spot someone who exercises other people’s for a living, typically a thin young woman with up to 10 canine charges, everything from lofty Afghan Hounds to squawking Yorkshire Terriers scampering alongside, a boon for me as I have always been dog daft and always want to pat every one I see. As for the beggars, the bulk of them are seated on the ground, either next to a supermarket or a cash machine, with an empty plastic cup as receptacle for coins, their typical age being early to mid-30s. Those squatted on the ground are unfailingly polite, offer eloquent thanks for anything you give them, and they usually invoke God’s blessing on you too. Maybe about a quarter of these unfortunates also have a dog, and whereas the sight of a dogless beggar on the ground with a coffee or often a can of lager for sustenance, can instantly alienate some folk, a beggar plus dog nearly always melts the heart of everyone, Daily Telegraph readers included. This is very likely because the homeless dog wears the true and painful vulnerability of its owner on its face, for it is an animal that cannot feign nor dissimulate its feelings. The dog also knows in every nerve that it is homeless, that it does not have a house to sleep in, no more than its owner does, and to that extent like all stray animals it has a poignant aura of forlorn abandonment, so that the non-beggar, me and you that is, feels not just morally but cosmically obliged to alleviate that arctic feeling of cruel dispossession. 

Beggars on the move are a different phenomenon, and it is partly the fact they are mobile and active, meaning there is a subliminal suggestion they could work or somehow support themselves if they tried hard enough, that makes them less effective in their task.  A few days ago, as I was walking through a busy thoroughfare, a young Caribbean man of about 30 with a hectic nervous energy about him, came lurching up and informed me he hadn’t eaten anything for 10 days, which seemed to me overdoing it as the usual fasting quota never exceeds 2 days. I fished out a pound and without a word of thanks he staggered off. Belatedly I called him back as I had discovered more small change, and I told him he could have that too. Again, he offered no thanks, which perhaps explains why when he begged from a second white gentleman who was walking behind me, he got short shrift.

“No mite,” said the man, with a nasal tone of scornful incredulity. “Juss fack off will you.”

The beggar fucked off and in doing so rolled on, and the man who’d refused alms kept on walking behind me, obsessively ranting, possibly at me the gullible giver. But his voice had become lower so that he was mumbling unintelligibly and I could only guess at the contours of his particular misanthropy. His babbling suggested he might possibly have been drunk by 11am, and of course a large proportion of beggars have some sort of serious addiction, cheap drugs if not cheap booze. But this seeming drunk was not a beggar, for he had money which he would not part with, and the gulf between the moneyed and the unmoneyed is more absolute than any other.

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

THE STRANGE HOTEL

THE STRANGE HOTEL

In March of 2013, when its streets were covered in snow, I went over to Poland to visit my 23-year old daughter Ione, who had been working there for a year. She was teaching English in the outstandingly beautiful city of Wroclaw (its historical name is Bratislava, confusingly the same as the Slovakian capital), which then had no direct flights from the north of England, meaning we found it easiest to meet up in Krakow, a 4-hour bus ride away. Thanks to the impeccable Rynek Glowny Square, as well as the handsome 13th century Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and St Mary’s Basilica, Krakow is a world heritage centre, and is so well known that certain pocket travel guides have all of 95 pages on Krakow, but only 5 on the rest of Poland, Warsaw included. Other compelling attractions include a great deal of live jazz mostly in subterranean clubs on Rynek Glowny, where both the entrance fee and a bottle of beer cost 1 euro. The jazz musicians are Poles in their early 20s, none of whom you’ve heard of, but all of them virtuosos nonetheless. You will also notice pristine horse drawn carriages with liveried drivers, as the Krakow equivalent of the London Sightseeing Bus. Less pristine are the frequent raucous stag parties of young Englishmen who long ago discovered that booze and accommodation in Eastern Europe can often be got for a song, and where you can get away with doing more or less what you like. One evening I was in a Krakow pub where one of a stag entourage was dressed as a caricature of lipsticked womanhood, and he and his cronies in their standard trainers and denims, did not even once glance around at the Poles surrounding them, to check if they were amused or shocked by their performance. I reflected that if a group of heedless young Poles had walked into a smart Manchester or Liverpool pub, and commenced a drunken cross-dressing rumpus, they would have been bawled out and turfed out of the premises faster than the speed of light.

The real shock when you’re in Krakow is of frequently coming face to face with at times chilling polar opposites. Next to the glamorous horse drawn carriages you will observe numerous smart minibuses doing shuttle trips to nearby Oswiecim, better known to you and me as Auschwitz. Those barbaric and quite unbelievable death camps of 70 odd years ago, are a popular tourist draw, if only because no one can assimilate the sheer magnitude and rank horror of the Holocaust, and has to see it with their own eyes. It is indeed vital that people see and learn from these terrible monuments to societal derangement and gratuitous evil, but perhaps the minibuses could be more discreet and respectful in their prominent pick-ups and drop offs, and for that matter the liveried carriages might decide to avoid the same city routes. Meanwhile, the first thing you’ll be told by your English-speaking guide is that Auschwitz-Birkenau was not a single entity, but a massive and extremely elaborate complex with a total of 40 dedicated units, some of them extermination facilities and others labour camps. 1,300,000 people entered it, of which 1,100,000 were exterminated. 90 per cent of them were Jews, but there were also 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet prisoners, and 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is to say that next time one of the latter knocks determinedly on your door, instead of groaning you might perhaps show them a new and deserved respect…

There was even more shock when it came to our Krakow accommodation, though only at the end of our stay it needs to be stressed. In this connection, my daughter Ione who has been backpacking everywhere from Iran and Iraq to El Salvador and Honduras, actually prefers communal dorm-sharing to the pampered self-contained en suite. I told her in advance I didn’t wish to stay in a hostel-style dormitory, and she nodded and laughed, and got me a single room and a dorm for herself in the same hotel. As it transpired, just down the road against a brick wall, was a large framed poster advertising the nearby Museum of the Krakow Gestapo, replete with harrowing archive photos taken by the Nazis of the Polish inmates they dragged in and tortured and often murdered. Back at the hotel my en suite room was fine, we were there 2 nights, and throughout my stay I made no connection whatever between our accommodation and that disturbing poster in the street below. But on the day we left, as we walked down the stairs with our bags, I noted for the first time a plaque on the wall with an inscription in both Polish and German. Ione had good Polish while I only had O level German, though it was enough for me to make out that the hotel where we had been staying was formerly the Krakow Gestapo’s HQ…

The grisly conclusion was obvious. The room where I had been sleeping unawares, might not have been the principal interrogation room, but whoever had been incarcerated there would have been able to hear the horrific screams emitted from close by. The same applied to Ione’s dormitory, and I checked with her and of course she had known nothing whatever of the hotel’s wartime history when she booked our stay in Krakow…

The night before we left for Wroclaw, we went to the cinema, where we were delighted to find that the excellent film they were screening, Slawomir Fabicki’s Milosc/Loving (2012) was provided with English subtitles. Ponder for a while that the equivalent scenario would be for a Pole holidaying in Britain to go to a cinema where an English or American movie was provided with Polish subtitles. This of course is wholly improbable, though not in any fair or objective sense, given that certain UK cities like Carlisle have substantial populations of Poles (at Carlisle railway station, for example, the parking instructions are in both English and Polish). That aside, we watched one of the most profoundly moving films I have ever seen in all my life, which makes it all the stranger that most of Ione’s Polish friends have never even heard of it. This is particularly baffling, as it has the gifted and handsome star actor Marcin Dorocinski (born 1972) playing the lead of Tomek. He and his wife Maria (Julia Kijowska, born 1981) are a professional couple living quietly in a small obscure Polish town, and she is pregnant with their first child. One day when Tomek is out, the town’s mayor (Adam Woronowicz, born 1973) turns up at their door, and seeing her alone rapidly forces himself on Maria and assaults her. The cruellest twist, while convincing enough, is that when Tomek learns from traumatised Maria what has happened, he is stonily alienated rather than sympathetic. Soon afterwards he decides to go to the mayor’s house to confront him, but the quaking official orders his wife to do the dirty work by offering Tomek a heap of cash as compensation. Foolishly Tomek takes the money, and his alienation from Maria grows exponentially as a result. As subtle counterpoint to this haunting parable, Tomek’s mother (Dorota Kolak, born 1957) is in the last stages of cancer, and is at home being nursed by her husband (Marian Dziedziel, born 1947).With the mother blindly groaning and weeping piteously in her bed, as if she were regressed to primitive babyhood rather than infancy, for the first time ever I beheld a truly credible depiction of the cruel disease in its terminal stages. The poignant twist is that Maria is a special favourite of her mother-in-law, and so she is there to tenderly nurse her towards her end, while Tomek with his wounded selfish egotism does not have the same power, and thus fails his mother and his wife and for that matter his grieving father when they all need him.

The next post will be on or before Sunday, November 24th

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

TOMMY AND HIS MISTRESS

A few years ago, when I was living in the small market town of Brampton in North Cumbria, UK, I had an unusual and theoretically impossible encounter. I was just about to go into the smaller of the two Spar supermarkets on a warm summer evening, when someone approached me to ask a favour. It was a smiling and heavily made up woman in her late sixties who I’d never seen before. She had a number of furrowed lines on her face and was visibly dishevelled, her jeans and blouse in grubby disarray, and she also exuded an odour of beer and wine that effortlessly overpowered the evening air. She also had a little dog on a lead and the dog was a tired but amiable old Lakeland Terrier, with a hint of lengthily acquired dopiness that possibly correlated with its mistress’s recreational habits. The woman looked at me and said could I please stand and hold the dog for her, while she went inside the shop. Somehow, I felt a premonitory unease at the request, and asked her why she just couldn’t tie him up at the convenient post nearby, like every other dog owner.

“Tommy doesn’t like being tied up,” she said. And then she hiccupped.

I stared at Tommy and decided I couldn’t imagine him disliking anything much, other than being forced to walk up a steep hill in the adjacent North Pennines.

“OK,” I said.

The woman disappeared for what turned out to be an endless 15 minutes. I stood there staring at the traffic going past, and feeling rather stupid. I even had the mad idea that possibly the woman wanted rid of Tommy, and this was an elaborate albeit drunken ruse for his abandonment. I said to myself that I would stand another 5 minutes of being a sentinel with his canine adjutant, and then I would shout inside the Spar to tell her to hurry up. Just as I was rehearsing all of that in my head, I suddenly felt something very warm on my left leg, and then within a second the warm turned to cold and then wet…

Tommy had treated me as a lamppost, even though one of unusual design, and had decided to piss on me…

Dog piss on your lower leg when you’ve been doing someone a handy little favour, fills you with a painful sense of melancholy and even of self-pity. I didn’t blame daft little Tommy of course, I even felt sorry for the feckless little blighter… but I did blame his stupid bloody mistress. When, after a marathon wait, she emerged, and I was starting to smell like a social work case, like the swaying lady herself in fact, I snorted:

“Your dog’s pissed on me! Look here! Look! It cocked its bloody leg, as if I was a lamppost.”

She tried not very hard to restrain her quaking mirth, and without a trace of guilt, embarrassment, dismay, much less any mordant self-reflection. Then what she said took my breath away…

“Are you sure it was my Tommy?”

For a time I was speechless, for she was seriously frowning as if I must be the fanciful kind.

I snapped at her, “Who else could it be? Ordinary Brampton folk aren’t in the habit of randomly pissing on locals, nor even on passing strangers. Look. The wetness stops exactly at Tommy’s height…”

She shook her addled head with haughty finality.

“That’s not the way my Tommy would behave!”

I reeled at her righteous use of the subjunctive. Meanwhile she assumed a majestic disdain, surveying me as if I was the inebriate, and she a woman of sobriety and immaculate habits, not to speak of flawless control of her autonomic nervous system.  

“Try looking closer to home,” she advised, before revolving on her heel and departing with Tommy.

The next post will be on or before Friday November 15th