THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

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

THE MAN WHO WASN’T A MUPPET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Oh £1.20…”

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

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DAFT NOTIONS

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

DAFT NOTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at her in amazement.

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

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

PORKY AND JEFF

The next post will be on or before Sunday 23rd December

PORKY AND JEFF

What I Did and Read in 2002

2002 was the year we explored some of the remoter Dodecanese, meaning those islands near Turkey, of which Kos and Rhodes are the best-known and most visited. In May of that year I was 51, Annie 46 and Ione almost 13, and in our daughter’s case a profound interest in feverishly attractive heartthrobs was showing its impulsive head. In tiny Lipsi which we reached via Kos, she immediately fell in love with a handsome boy of about 20 who had an arresting Mohican haircut, as you might predict the only one of its kind in that obscure community. The good news was that Mohican’s best mate, his ballast and his brake you might say, was his unalluring cousin, a native of the island, whereas the Fenimore Cooper gent hailed from groovy central Athens, hence the striking tonsure.Privately Annie and I referred to the cousin aged perhaps 16 as Porky Scratchings, as he was very obese and rather dozy looking, though it certainly gladdened our hearts that he made a homely foil towards the Chingachgook lookalike. Nevertheless, it made for strain and friction as on the day we took a boat excursion around Lipsi satellites like Arki (population 40) and Marathi (6 souls in summer only) Ione said she wanted to stay on Lipsi and dally with her hero. No one in their right mind would have allowed a 12-year-old to stay on their own all day in those circumstances, but it meant our offspring sulked for a virtuoso 8 hours and even my jovial kay-oh-kay gags which had Annie at any rate hooting, fell on deaf ears. In case you need explication, back in the late 50s and early 60s, there was an epic TV series of Lassie, the American doughty dog adventure, where the 11-year-old owner who came of a Midwest farming family, was called Jeff, blond and gentle and exemplary…and his best pal was a sausagey-looking lad called Porky. Porky and Jeff had a secret greeting call, which they bawled redundantly at each other from any visible distance and which was KAY-OH-KAY!

We had a day trip to legendary Patmos, famously where Saint John had his apocalyptic vision, as described in Revelation, the last book of the Bible.We visited the shrine where supposedly the vision had happened, and altogether bizarrely, just as we left it, we were greeted by the contemporary variant of the apocalyptic, as 2 local kids both about 15, bowling downhill from the Hora on a scooter, shouted gleeful and universally intelligible obscenities at no one in particular. By contrast, when we stopped off at minuscule Marathi on the boat excursion, the gentlemanly if businesslike owner of one of the 2 tavernas, both of which offered accommodation, urged us to come and stay there a fortnight and truly get away from it all. Some prospect, Annie and I instantly decided, akin to deep therapy with no way out as it were.  Marathi is basically a glorified sandspit, or a large cricket pitch, with a church, an exquisite beach, the 2 tavernas, and absolutely nothing else. Can you imagine 2 weeks on Marathi with a hormonal teenager which would be not only minus Chingachgook, but minus everything else?As I say like deep therapy and instead of getting away from it all, you would be getting into an unusual and original cul de sac which though not apocalyptic would certainly not be any Shangri La…

What I Read in 2002 (from my Reading Diary for that year)

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (1926-2016. Worldwide bestseller about Deep South racism published in 1960 and which every UK schoolkid reads as a set book. The Alabama writer refused to give it any more publicity via interviews after 1964)

In The Land of Dreamy Dreams by Ellen Gilchrist (born 1935. Eminent Mississippi short story writer who won the National Book Award)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1924-1984. Best known 1958 novel of the celebrated author which was turned into a film in 1961 with Audrey Hepburn playing Holly Golightly)

Changes of Address by Lee Langley (born 1932. This 1987 autobiographical novel by the Indian writer born Calcutta, is very enjoyable and made her name. She lives in London)

An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma (born 1971. Indian-US writer, Harvard-educated, who is a professor of Creative Writing. This is his best known 2000 novel)

Funeral Party by Ludmilla Ulitskaya (born 1943. The 1997 novel of the Russian-Jewish writer who divides her time between Moscow and Israel and has written about the Holocaust)

Fort Comme la Mort/ Strong as Death by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893. The 1889 novel of the great short story writer and a fine novelist as seen here, and  in Bel Ami, who died of chronic syphilis aged 43)

Sleep It Off Lady by Jean Rhys (1890-1979. Legendary novelist and story writer patronised by editor and novelist Ford Madox Ford, with whom she had an affair. She disappeared from view for many years and lived in Bude, Cornwall, which she called Bude The Obscure. Rediscovered, she eventually produced this her late 1976 story collection)

Our Weddings by Dorit Rabinyan (born 1972. The 1999 novel of an Israeli writer of Iranian Jewish extraction)

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (born 1943. Eminent Australian writer who has won the Booker Prize twice, including with this his 1988 novel)

Fables by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889. The great Russian satirist is best known for his 1880 novel The Golovlov Family. A liberal rather than a radical, he worked for the Czarist government, but got into trouble over his journalism)

The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West (1892-1983. A 1935 story collection by the celebrated writer and journalist who was lover of HG Wells for many years)

Lovely Green Eyes by Arnost Lustig (1926-2011. Superb if harrowing Czech Jewish writer who went through Auschwitz as a teenager and much of whose fiction treats of the Holocaust)

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch (1911-1991. Doyen of Swiss authors best known for his 1957 Homo Faber. This is his 1954 novel)

The Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1897-1962. The 1938 story collection by the great Mississippi writer best known for The Sound and the Fury)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (born 1975. Bestselling very enjoyable debut novel published 2000 by London writer whose mother was Jamaican and her father English)

What Maisie Knew by Henry James (1843-1916. The 1897 novel of the eminent author which has been filmed and adapted numerous times. I have always struggled with Henry James sad to say)

Complete Stories of Isaac Babel (1894-1940. Acclaimed as ‘the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry’ he was arrested by the NKVD and shot as a Trotskyist spy)

The Last of Summer by Kate O’ Brien (1897-1974. Hugely gifted Irish novelist thankfully rescued from oblivion like many other excellent women writers by Virago Press. An early feminist, she had 2 novels banned in Ireland and one banned in Spain. Her 1946 historical novel set in Spain, That Lady, was filmed in 1955 and starred Olivia de Haviland and Paul Scofield)

The Widow by Francis King (1923-2011. Fine novelist who came out as a gay in the 70s and worked for the British Council for many years. This is his 1957 novel)

The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih (1929-2009. The 1964 novel of one of Sudan’s best-known authors)

The Only Problem by Muriel Spark (the 1984 work of the very gifted and blackly comic novelist)

Small World by Martin Suter (born 1948. The 1997 work of a leading Swiss novelist and columnist)

The Farm Theotime by Henri Bosco (1888-1976. A remarkably original and disturbing rustic tale by the Avignon writer who also wrote children’s books.Published in 1945 it won the Prix Renaudot. I wrote a post about it last year in these pages)

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865. Debut 1848 novel by the great writer who unusually concerned herself with those living in poverty. Her novels are of obvious interest to English social historians of the period)

Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949. Best known for her novels about mediaeval Norway, including Kristin Lavransdatter, I much prefer her modern works such as this excellent 1932 study of a difficult marriage. She won the Nobel Prize in 1928)

A Woman of My Age by Nina Bawden (1925-2012. The 1967 work of a prolific and very enjoyable English novelist. Most of her work is available inVirago)

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000. This fine story collection was published the year she died. She won the Booker Prize in 1979 for Offshore which was set on a London houseboat)

Fury by Salman Rushdie (born 1947. My favourite novel of his is Shame which is set in Pakistan, but having read it several times and also taught Midnight’s Children, I like the book that made his name less and less. This is his 2001 novel)

Monsieur Carre Benoit in The Country by Henri Bosco (a very strange but impressive 1937 novel by the Avignon writer)

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910. This is his 1886 novella)

An Only Child by Frank O’Connor (1903-1966. A superb and moving volume of memoirs, published 1961, by the great Irish short story writer)

Culotte the Donkey by Henri Bosco (his best known 1937 children’s book, that took nearly 40 years to appear in English)

Henri Bosco – Poet and Novelist by RT Sussex (the only full-length study of the Avignon writer available in English, written by a New Zealand academic)

The Adventures of Pascalet by Henri Bosco (this translation of his children’s book appeared with OUP in the year of his death, 1976)

Hindoo Holiday by JR Ackerley (1896-1967. Openly gay UK writer whose memoir of his father is his best-known book, alongside that of his beloved dog, in the 1956 My Dog Tulip. This 1952 work describes his brief term as secretary to an Indian maharaja)

Knulp by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962. I like the great man’s Steppenwolf and the short 1910 novel Gertrud very much and I wrote about the latter in these pages. Sad to say I found this 1915 work unreadable and gave up half way through)

The Boy and The River by Henri Bosco (his 1945 children’s novel)

The Lost Girl by DH Lawrence (1885-1930. Not well known but this excellent 1920 novel won the James Tait Black Prize the same year. It is about a bankrupt draper’s daughter Alvina Houghton who falls for an Italian actor and has a sexual awakening)

Between The Acts by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941. The final 1941 work of the great writer)

Twenty Years A Growing by Maurice O’ Sullivan (1904-1950. Touching memoir by one of the Blasket Island, Co Kerry writers. The island was abandoned in 1953, and Tomas O’ Crohan and Peig Sayers also wrote their Blasket memoirs, all available with OUP. EM Forster praised this 1933 work, but condescendingly characterised it as a description of ‘Neolithic’ culture)

The Virgin and the Gypsy by DH Lawrence (the 1926 novella was turned into a 1970 movie starring Maurice Denham and Fay Compton, and with Franco Nero as the gypsy)

The Ladybird by DH Lawrence (his 1922 novella first drafted as a story in 1915)

Among the Russians by Colin Thubron (born 1939. Eminent UK travel writer and this is his account of driving round the Soviet Union in 1981)

Downhill All The Way by Leonard Woolf (1880-1969. Husband of Virginia, this is his 1967 memoir of the years 1919-1939, meaning covering up to 2 years before her death)

The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass (1927-2015. The best known 1959 novel of one of Germany’s most important writers, turned into a movie in 1979 starring David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath)

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990. Celebrated English novelist who was lover of Cecil Day Lewis and sister of the London Magazine editor John Lehmann. Many of her novels were filmed for TV, and this 1953 work had a 2002 adaptation starring Helena Bonham Carter)

The White Horses of Vienna by Kay Boyle (1902-1992. Wonderful politically active and prolific US writer who deserves more attention than she gets. She was persecuted in the McCarthyism years and lost her journalist job before being rehabilitated in 1957. This is her 1937 story collection, and my favourite of her works is the 1944 novel Avalanche)

The Orange Tree by Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012. One of Mexico’s most famous writers, much admired by Salman Rushdie and others, though I personally am not a great fan. This is his 1994 short story collection)

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Banes (born 1946. Barnes won the Booker in 2011 and was shortlisted with this 1984 novel, but heretical as it sounds, I have never been an admirer. His erudition and observation are always jauntily jovial rather than profound – see his 1989 History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters – and most of his narrators/protagonists sound identical to his jauntily jovial TV criticism published in the New Statesman circa 40 years ago. Only the Brits would be so impressed by such an artless conflation)

The Traveller’s Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011. Legendary buccaneer travel writer and novelist who fought in the Cretan Resistance in WW2, and settled in Kardamili, Greece. This is his 1950 Caribbean travelogue)

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891. One of America’s greatest writers, but this 1851 whaling saga is not exactly easy going for a vegetarian like myself)

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (1914-1997. Volume 2 of his autobiographical trilogy, the earlier Cider With Rosie being his best-known work. He was a fine and vivid writer who also fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He came from Slad in Gloucs)

A Rose For Winter by Laurie Lee (his 1955 work about travelling in Andalusia)

The Murderer by Roy Heath (1926-2008. Guyanese writer settled in UK best known for his Georgetown Trilogy, 1979-1981. This 1978 novel won the Guardian Fiction Prize)

The Insurrection by Liam O’ Flaherty (1896-1984. Shamefully neglected Irish genius whose works are mostly out of print these days. This is his 1950 novel about the Easter Uprising of 1916)

A Violent Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975. Massively talented film maker and novelist who was appallingly tortured and murdered aged 53, either by the Mafia or by an unknown extortionist. This 1959 autobiographical novel about a bunch of poverty-stricken youths in Rome was turned into a fine 1961 film)

Island Going by Robert Atkinson (wonderful account of 2 bird lovers travelling the remoter Hebrides, including St Kilda and N Rona in 1935, in search of Leach’s fork-tailed petrel)

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1904-1991. His famous 1940 novel about a ‘whisky’ priest in Tabasco State, Mexico)

Noble Descents by Gerald Hanley (1916-1992. The 1982 novel by the soldier author who wrote powerful anti-colonial novels such as the excellent The Consul at Sunset. He was arguably overshadowed by his better-known  brother James Hanley, author of the shocking and prosecuted Boy)

The Fifth Estate by Ferdinando Camon (born 1935. Italian writer best known for this trilogy of memoirs published 1970-1978)

Conversation at Curlow Creek by David Malouf (born 1934. The 1996 novel of the eminent Australian writer, which is about the relationship between a criminal and his executioner circa 1827 in New South Wales)

The Go Between by LP Hartley (1895-1972. Best known work of an author who also wrote the fine The Hireling about a charismatic chauffeur and his employer, both novels being filmed. The movie of this one was made in 1971, and starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. He also wrote the acclaimed Eustace and Hilda, but I have tried some of his other lesser known works, and sad to say they are not very impressive)

Isles of the West by Ian Mitchell (all about a 3 month voyage in 1999 around the Hebrides)

The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (1840-1902. One of his massive series of novels which tries to prove the importance of heredity on behaviour, and is called the Rougon-Macquart cycle. It was published in 1871)

Fromont Junior and Risler Senior by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897. Best known for Letters from my Windmill and Tartarin of Tarascon, this 1874 novel with its ungainly title was remarkably a worldwide- bestseller. My favourites of his works are Numa Roumestan and Sappho, both of which are uninhibitedly and enjoyably sensual. Tragically Daudet like Maupassant suffered from chronic syphilis)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1875-1955. His 1912 novel which was turned into the poignant 1971 Visconti movie starring Dirk Bogarde. Mann won the Nobel Prize in 1929)

Tonio Kruger by Thomas Mann (1903)

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann (1951)

Mario The Magician by Thomas Mann (1929)

I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven (1901-1980. Debut 1967 novel by acclaimed US writer)

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf (1978)

Letters from my Windmill by Alphonse Daudet (1869)

Our Lady of the Lies by Paul Bourget (1852-1935. Bourget, admired by John Cowper Powys, is not much read nowadays, as he was of both austere Catholic and monarchist persuasion, but what I have read I have enjoyed. This is his 1886 novel)

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

Sea Room by Adam Nicholson (born 1957. Fine travel writer and historian who is son of Nigel Nicolson and grandson of Vita Sackville West.This 2001 book is about the uninhabited Shiant Isles in the Outer Hebrides, which lucky Mr Nicholson owns)

Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (1919-2013. Eminent British Zimbabwean writer famous for The Golden Notebook and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. This is her 1952 novel, and my favourite of all her works is the 1950 The Grass is Singing)

Down By The River by Edna O’ Brien (born 1930. Superb Co Clare writer who made her remarkable 1960 debut with The Country Girls. This is a powerful and harrowing 1997 novel about a young girl impregnated by her father trying in vain to get an abortion. It was based on a real and shocking case from 1992. Needless to say, back in the old days and up to the 1970s, much of O’Brien’s work was banned in Ireland)

Time and Tide by Edna O’ Brien (her 1992 novel about a downtrodden Irishwoman called Nell struggling to survive in the UK)

Wild Decembers by Edna O’ Brien (a 1999 novel set in the west of Ireland in the 1970s, which was made into a TV series by Telefis Eireann)

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone (1937-2015. Important US writer much influenced by the 60s counter culture, who variously set his novels in e.g.Vietnam and Jim Crow era New Orleans. This is his 1999 novel)

Atomised by Michel Houllebecq (born 1956. Winner of the Prix Goncourt and described by some as the greatest living French writer, I find his work leeringly adolescent, amateurish and at times revolting. He was taken to court for inciting racial hatred and his knack for creating controversy certainly helps his books to sell. This is his 1998 novel)

Brendan Behan’s Island by Brendan Behan (1923-1964. Wonderful illustrated 1962 account of the boozy mega celebrity writer and militant Republican, returning  to Dublin and meeting some powerful eccentrics in the bars. Behan who died of alcoholism, once said ‘I am a drinker with a writing problem’…

Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan (the 1958 autobiographical account that made his name. He was arrested aged 16 for subversive activities with the IRA, and was incarcerated in a borstal in Suffolk. The book was much admired by Kenneth Tynan)

Confessions of an Irish Rebel by Brendan Behan (1965)

The Scarperer by Brendan Behan (his only novel, published in 1963. An enjoyable knockabout tale about amateurish subversion in Dublin where drink gets in the way)

Diary of My Times by Georges Bernanos (1888-1948. His 1938 work and which followed on from his best known 1936 book, Diary of a Country Priest, turned into a film by Bresson. Bresson also made a moving version of the 1966 Mouchette, about a neglected young peasant girl. Bernanos was a devout Catholic with monarchist leanings, but despite his links with Action Francaise he described Fascism as ‘disgustingly monstrous’)

The Crocodile’s Head by Jack Debney (fine collection of stories by an Englishman who has spent most of his life teaching in Germany. I gave it a very positive review in the Literary Review)

Usurpers by Francisco Ayala (1949 collection of 7 stories by a writer exiled to Argentina after the Spanish Civil War. It treats of various historical figures, including Spanish monarchs, all of them hungry for power, hence usurpers, who usually get their Nemesis)

Arabia by Jonathan Raban (born 1942. Eminent UK travel writer and this 1979 work has him going through the footsteps of TE Lawrence and Wilfrid Thesiger, as he journeys through the oil states and Saudi Arabia. As preparation he also learnt Arabic from a woman called Fatma)

An Affair of Honour by Richard Marius (1933-1999. Gifted Tennessee writer and academic. This was published posthumously in 2001, and is about the trial of a Tennessee man who murders a woman for unfaithfulness, hence the title)

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano (1953-2003. Vagabond Chilean novelist who died aged 50 of liver failure. This novel is in part the loosely structured deathbed rantings of an Opus Dei priest and failed poet. The NY Times described him as one of the most important South American writers of his generation)

My Brother Brendan by Dominic Behan (1928-1989. Engaging memoir of his famous brother by one of Ireland’s greatest song writers, who was both a Republican and a committed socialist)

Sowing by Leonard Woolf (memoir by Virginia’s husband covering the years 1880-1904. Published in 1960)

Oranges for the Son of Alexander Levy by Nella Bielski (born in the 1930s in Ukraine, she then married a Frenchman and moved to France. She was a film actress as well as writer, and was regularly translated by her friend John Berger)

Evelina by Fanny Burney (1752-1840. Witty and satirical epistolary novel about a 17-year old’s entrance into the fashionable world, published anonymously in 1778. It was praised by Dr Johnson)

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989. Late 1988 collection of essays by the great travel writer and novelist. One essay is about making a film with Werner Herzog)

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (born 1948. His early 1981 excursion into S and M set somewhere that be might be Venice. I rate some of his books highly e.g. Atonement and Saturday, but I think e.g. A Child in Time and Enduring Love and Booker-winning Amsterdam, are all deeply spurious and deeply smug.  I also thought the 2016 Nutshell was an absolute disgrace as it is narrated by a foetus who becomes a connoisseur of the wines its mother drinks during pregnancy. Did no one ever tell brainbox Ian, who is supposedly really into science, that foetuses and alcohol don’t mix?)

The Invisible Worm by Jennifer Johnston (born 1930. Gifted Irish writer who won the Whitbread Award and whose novel The Old Jest was filmed as The Dawning with Anthony Hopkins. This is her 1992 novel)

The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston (1972)

An Old Woman’s Reflections by Peig Sayers (1873-1958. One of the Blasket Island writers, alongside Tomas O’Crohan and Maurice O’ Sullivan. She did not actually write these reflections but dictated them and was a renowned storyteller. Mesmerising reading and available with OUP)

In The Wake by Per Petterson (born 1953. Leading Norwegian writer whose breakthrough came with the 2003 Out Stealing Horses. This is his 2000 novel)

By The Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah (born 1948. Tanzanian writer who teaches in the University of Kent. His best-known book is the 1994 Paradise and this 2001 work was longlisted for the Booker)

The Longest Journey by EM Forster (1879-1970. The least known and most autobiographical of the great man’s novels was published in 1907. It is the only one of his novels never to have been adapted for film)

STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

I will be busy for the next couple of weeks and there will be no new post until on or before Wednesday 12th December

STARTLING EXPRESSIONS

Quaint turns of phrase can delight and irritate in equal measure, and it’s true to say there are certain phrases some people use to excess that can set one’s teeth on edge, so that you have to do deep breathing to avoid going into a Basil Fawlty rant at them, or worse. Someone I once knew used the expression ‘blah di blah’ with a piercingly nasal inflection up to four times per ten sentences of speech, as a means of shorthand summary, instead of the more neutral ‘etc etc’ or ‘and so on’ and had clearly no idea either of the frequency, or of the grating nature of that far from sonorous expression. As a rule, I am more tolerant than most of the words folk use either in conversation or in emails (as opposed to the creative written word) but hearking back to acronyms as discussed recently, a couple of weeks ago and for the first time ever I discovered the remarkable ATB. Slow off the mark as I am, I immediately understood that it was meant as ‘All The Best’, the standard valediction at the end of an email, but it had an instant effect in 2 ways contrary to the author’s expectations. It was a round robin sent out by someone I knew to have an enormous address book, and it was asking for a touching favour for a third party. But the fact that the writer couldn’t be bothered to write a single All the Best, which takes what 3 seconds to type? inevitably made me think less of him and also somehow invalidated the selflessness of his request, though not of course the request itself. It would take the doubtless busy recipients of his round robin maybe 10-15 minutes to execute the desired favour, and he who begged the favour could not be bothered to take 3 seconds just to wish his correspondents well.

On the comedy side, possibly the most startling expression I have ever heard in my life was in 1974 at a cousin’s house in West Cumbria where his 4-year-old daughter Tansy was playing with her 4-year-old friend William. I hadn’t seen William for some time and he was one of those old-fashioned little boys who seem like the miniature already pre-edited version of exactly how they would look as a frowning adult. He had a solemn, moonlike extremely scrubbed face, he sniffed a lot, often appeared comically pensive, and he resembled very much a good-looking miniature version of the controversial comedian Benny Hill, currently at his worldwide zenith in 1974.

“How are you William?” I asked him by way of pleasant conversation.

He looked at me sagely, in a way most pintsize 4-year-olds would not, as if the enquiry were a matter of enduring importance rather than a casual remark.

“Ah,” he sighed. “I’ve been having trouble with my epiglottis…”

I promise you that’s exactly what the pipsqueak said, and I immediately noticed my relative’s wife Dora chuckling at the bizarre precocity. Any West Cumbrian infant other than William would have lisped, ‘I’ve had a sore fwoat’, but instead the homunculus professor had made his measured utterance. I realise now with a shock that William must be all of 48 in 2018 and it wouldn’t surprise me if he is one the world’s leading throat surgeons who knows more about epiglottises than most.

You get quaintness in grown adults too, and surprises all the way. A couple of years ago I was in correspondence with a very nice Englishwoman in her 60s who kept apologising for her use of multiple exclamation marks. Parenthetically I have only ever known women to use them in the plural, never men, and sincerely I do not deplore or mock the habit as old-fashioned knuckle-rapping schoolteachers might. I honestly think it might be a function of women of any background or station never being listened to enough, whether in a social or professional context, nor credited to have as much wit or sharpness as bumptiously emphatic blokes believe themselves to be in the same milieu. However, that is not the point to this anecdote, for what really surprised me was that in a single email she clearly intended to use the term ‘exclamation marks’ 4 or 5 times, but she didn’t write that at all, for what she wrote instead was ‘explanation marks’. I happened to know she was a graduate with an important managerial job and because she used the wrong term 4 to 5 times it cannot possibly have been a typo. Therefore for 60 odd years this university-educated woman had gone around talking about explanation marks, and hadn’t ever twigged that the proper term actually makes some sense whereas her own version did not. They are called exclamation marks as they follow what is exclaimed, not what is explained or dissected…

At the opposite end from that, is a clever dick writer like me supposedly infinitely sensitive to the nuances of words and the resonances in the silences between words and the echoes of the infinite in terms of unelaborated suggestion (qv the literary credo of Vladimir Nabokov and of Abhinavagupta the ancient Indian writer on poetics). Endowed with all of that, yes, but who nonetheless thinks that certain words make objective sense, when in fact they don’t, or at least only at a secondary and metaphorical level. In this context, I need to quote my West Cumbrian parents, Ian and Mollie Murray, a factory worker and a housewife respectively, both born 1915, both of whom who left school at 14 and had no secondary education to speak of, even though my father was a lifelong reader and autodidact. My parents had colourful words of their own that I never heard anywhere else, but which I presume they had learned at the knee of earlier generations. For example, if they wished to speak disparagingly of something e.g. a TV programme or a celebrated chip shop or a fashionable holiday resort, they would say, ‘it’s nowt patent’ which though I understood the phrase, I only managed to translate into logical sense at the age of about 40. The explanation is that back in their own parents’ time (my grandparents were all born between 1878 and 1885) when poor folk could not afford to see a doctor, the antidote to non-fatal ill health, whether it be anything from constipation to bad nerves to a bad back to flatulence to impotence, were the patent medicines usually in dark bottles that were advertised in the newspaper and the magazines of the day. If something was ‘patent’ it meant in terms of the sufferer’s wishful thinking it was effective and magical and dynamite, and something to put your trust in. Extrapolate that and then patent just becomes a term of approval and its antonym ‘nowt patent’ a dead loss.

Less glamorously we need to turn to the humble and unarguably fundamental (geddit?) backside which my folks also had their own humorous term for and which I have never heard used anywhere else in the anglophone world. Sure enough they regularly talked about the backside, the behind, bottom, arse, bum etc but they also regularly referred to it as ‘The West End’ and assuredly back in the 50s and 60s they weren’t talking about Terence Rattigan dramas or Brian Rix farces in the metropolis. I carried this quaint little posterior navigational compass phrase around in my head for all of 60 odd years, believing it to have some sort of core semantic validity, until only a few days ago in the middle of the night it occurred to me that the expression didn’t make any bloody sense at all…

West End of what?

You can only be called the West End if you are west of something else. Discarding the redundant front view, from the rear view your backside is only west of whatever is to its right, e.g. your wife or your husband or a heaving saloon bar or a vicar or a brace of handsome borzois or a photo of Theresa May colloguing with Boris Johnson, or the Complete Works of William Shakespeare as assembled on a creaking bookshelf. The only way it can make any sense at all, the West End qua the humble behind, is if someone turns to a right-facing profile and assuming they are steatopygic and have a protuberant backside, and the more protuberant the better, it might arguably be their West End…

Personally, as an accurate and homely metaphorical phrase for that which is often deemed mirthful (clowns kick each other up and on the West End) I think that it is Nowt Patent….

ATB!!!

Sorry for all the Exclamation/ Explanation Marks…

And I am not even a woman…

HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, JOSIE

The next post will be on or before Saturday 1st December

HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, JOSIE

My Aunty Josie was born 13 days after the end of WW1, on the 24th November 1918, hence turned her century yesterday in a care home in West Cumbria, where she has been for the last 5 years. Before that aged 94, she was living alone in an upstairs flat in no nonsense downtown Workington and every Tuesday night businesslike dragging her 2 dustbins down for the Wednesday 7am collection. Redoubtable isn’t the word for it. Up until she was 90, as a retired confectioner she was baking a minimum of 20 Christmas cakes for her numerous friends, kids in their sixties, seventies and eighties who visited her at least once a week as their most charismatic and without a doubt most generous acquaintance. Forget about the costly ingredients, but her winter electricity bill was astronomical, for Christmas loaves as she called them, have to sit in the oven smirking away at low temperature, refusing to bite the bullet and actually bake, for endless hours. One year she also wrote and posted, she told me, 117 Christmas cards and got back 112 and she spoke with a measured possibly limited charity of the 5 anomalous defaulters. Charity and charisma are indeed appropriate words in her case, as she has always been a devout Evangelical Christian whose sole reading material for decades has been her Daily Bread scripture pamphlets.

The great thing about stereotypes is they are nearly always way off the mark. Believe it or not you cannot even stereotype Evangelical Christians, for her husband Ted who died aged 86 in 2003 was also one, and yet as a former collier, he was also an uninhibited comic who was not afraid to mix his words. At the age of 17 when I was at a family party with my girlfriend, I interrupted one of Ted’s zestful anecdotes to ask him what ‘humping’ meant, as for some incredible reason and even with Lawrence Durrell’s steamy Alexandrian Quartet under my belt, I had never heard the word in its colloquial context. He stared at me a second or two and then at my girlfriend, and then said he would whisper it later in my ear outside, whereupon my parents and even Josie burst into hectic if wholly innocent laughter. On reflection that word ‘humping’ was first applied by farmers to their simple animals and to copulating sheep in particular, so perhaps its pastoral origins made it less disturbing than the Anglo- Saxon gerund. Less controversially, at the same party Ted urged me to offer Aunty Joan’s adored but yappy little poodle Judy a handful of silverskin pickled onions to shut it up, and then in the same breath surveying the dinner table, he whispered to me with great originality re my Uncle Tommy’s daunting new hairstyle. Tommy, a lorry driver from the back end of remotest rural East Cumbria, born somewhere around 1930, had become inordinately fond of gel and quiffs as he entered his mid-20s in rock and roll 1955, and now in his late 50s, was suddenly returning to his glamorous youthful image. This evening he had really outdone himself, for his gel was so copious it shone under the electric light like some new moon of Saturn, and the luxurious quiff he had imposed upon it, constituted a gable end at the front at least 3 inches long and 4 inches wide. He looked, in short, exactly like one of the Leningrad Cowboys, the mad retro rock band as envisaged by the remarkable Finnish film director Aki Kaurismaki. Ted passed his incisive judgement on Tommy’s startling tonsure in the broadest Cumbrian dialect.

Marraboy Tommy leuks like ee’s hed a bad flate!” (Boyo Tommy looks like he’s had a bad fright!)

Ted died in bed in the middle of the night in August 2003 with Josie lying there next to him as she had done for the last 60 years. The horror she felt both at the proximity of his corpse and when in raw sorrow she realised he was never going to wake up again, meant that she told the story of his fatal heart attack every time she met anyone from that day onwards. Her other obsessive story came a few years later, when she had to go into hospital herself, and when a young male nurse one day had given her a bed bath. It had all happened so quickly and she had been so dumbstruck she had not had a chance to protest, but she assured her patient audience she had never felt so mortally embarrassed in her life. No amount of urging her that it was his job and was certainly not embarrassing to him made any difference to her tragic blow by blow account of how it had happened and what a post-traumatic example of a muck sweat it had put her in.

Josie was not in fact my aunty, but my mother’s cousin and she was also adopted, a fact which she never spoke of to anyone other than possibly Ted. Her adoptive mother was my Aunty Ginnie who was in her late 80s in the early 1960s and who had the mildest and kindest nature of anyone I have ever met. She lived with Josie and Ted and had numerous furrows of loose and shrunken skin, countless freckles that seemingly marbled her face, and a surprisingly deep voice, even though she swore she had never smoked. Josie was still a confectioner then, and if she was out shopping Ginnie was always there in the back kitchen where a huge old black range baked the bread and cakes and where her hands and skirt were perennially coated in ghostly flour. Aunty Ginnie was another lifelong chapelgoer, and in Josie’s childhood was disturbingly literal in her notion of Christian charity. She took in waifs and strays including a startling character called Uncle Sam who only had one leg and was an alcoholic and he stayed with her for the best part of 10 years. I fictionalised some of this in my 2001 novel John Dory as I also did the deviant behaviour of Josie the reckless child who loved to play awful tricks on her guileless mother. Once simpering sweetly, she brought into the kitchen a present of a pound of lard, bought at the butcher’s with her last few pence of pocket money, so she cooed to beaming Ginnie. It was tightly wrapped in an unusually grubby issue of the West Cumberland Times and Star and when her mother gushed her gratitude and opened it up, she beheld instead a long dead rat, and she screamed enough terror to bring the house down.

Josie and Ted had no children, and after leaving the pit he got a cushy and well-paid job as a security officer in a factory that employed half of West Cumbria. With the income from the busy confectioner’s they had money to burn, and Ted could think of no one better to spoil than Josie, who possibly because she was adopted and had no child to spoil, became the pampered child herself. The spoiling took the form of driving to the county seat of Carlisle of a Saturday where she would shop for expensive clothes in the one or two exclusive stores, not to speak of lush accessories like umpteen designer shoes, handbags, cosmetic sets and more. Back home she would fill the 3 huge wardrobes in the 3 bedrooms with her glorious suits and skirts and boots, and she accumulated so many she was a West Cumbrian Imelda Marcos of whom assuredly she had never heard and never would (once in a party game I asked her the capital of Spain and she frowned then giggled and said she hadn’t a clue). The morality tale that ensued (an Evangelical who accumulated countless worldly goods) was that she never wore 95% of her trophies but simply accumulated them to show off to folk like my Aunty Joan and my mother, both of whom had husbands who made half of what Ted made, and one of whom, my mother, had four children to look after. Now and again, in a fit of largesse she would offer a dress or a jacket or a blouse to my mother who at first would modestly and repeatedly no no, but then as Josie pressed her, and as the item on display was so undeniably beautiful would reluctantly accept.

And then Josie’s piece de resistance. She and I left my mother to dress in front of the bedroom mirror and went through to the sitting room, where Josie usually laid 2 Wagon Wheels and a huge glass of dandelion and burdock on me as we waited for the imminent fashion show…

My mother who could never afford designer clothes, walked through shyly in a sumptuous pale blue suit which had cost Josie 50 guineas in 1964, meaning five times my Dad’s wage at the shoe factory. Even to me aged 13 who had no idea of women’s (or men’s for that matter) fashion, she looked brilliantly lustrously attractive. I was about to say something sincerely complimentary through a mouthful of wet Wagon Wheel, when Josie got to it first. Josie, as I said, had never heard of Imelda Marcos nor knew the capital of Spain, nor of course had she heard of Litotes or Negative Hyperbole if that is the accurate rhetorical trope she came out with by way of cousinly laudation.

The more homely name for it is… Damning with Faint Praise…

“Oh,” said the middle-aged woman who would live to be a 100, to the middle-aged woman who would live to be only 74. And then added:

“Don’t worry, lass. You don’t look daft in it. You needn’t worry yourself. You don’t look soft…”

And with that I could see my mother doubting not just herself, but of course everything else in this wholly unpredictable world…

 

LOL AND OMG!

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 28th November

LOL AND OMG!

George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Mollie Keane and James Joyce, are all outstanding examples of those who were phenomenally sensitive to the infinite nuances of those mercurial, indeed hallucinatory things called Words. As in his own hilarious way was the late great comedian Professor Stanley Unwin (1911-2002) who with his excellent default epistemological category ‘fundamould’ (= ‘philosophical fundamental’) could entertain an audience for hours. Prof Unwin provides a salutary foil to those authoritarian pedants who don’t like splitting infinitives nor putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, but believe you me those old-fashioned sticklers are nowhere near as extreme as some. About 20 years ago, I briefly mixed in the same circle as a know-all bloke with an excessive amount of education, famed for his love of formality and intellectual hierarchy, who in dinner party conversations would come out with sentences like the following.

‘Possibly in this situation the best approach/strategy would be to aim at/test empirically the simplest/least complex option.’

Except he didn’t say that at all, for amazingly what he said was:

Possibly in this situation the best approach STROKE strategy would be to aim at STROKE test empirically the simplest STROKE least complex option’

 After 10 minutes of that I thought I was taking a stroke myself, added to which I was genuinely worried about this finicky geezer’s mental health. As I stared at him (and for want of distraction and rather like Richmal Crompton’s Just William when bored, I was trying to count his teeth) I thought to myself did he talk like that in bed with his wife (‘would you like STROKE prefer me, to stroke STROKE caress STROKE palpate you?’). The point is he obviously believed that there was admirable intellectual subtlety in giving an approximate synonym for everything he said, whereas instead he seemed to have a verbal OCDC similar to those unfortunate folk who have to wash their hands red raw 20 times after going to the bathroom rather than once.

At the opposite end to all that fussiness, is the amiable practice most evident in Facebook posts and confiding texts between best pals aged anywhere between 15 and 75, of peppering one’s paragraphs with acronyms on the lines of OMG (Oh My God!) WTF (What The Fuck) and last but not least the duplicitous and debatable LOL. Apropos which, a lot of people think that with my Sanskrit and Old Iranian degree and 11 books to my name, I must be a brainbox and a steaming intellectual, but I have to confess to being thicker than shit in this specific acronymic context. It was only a few months ago at the tender age of 67, that I discovered what the current generation means by LOL, for in my own formative years, back in the swinging mid 60s when I was in my mid-teens, it could only mean one thing, namely ‘Lots Of Love’. More to the point, when I was 15 years old in 1966, no less than twice did I receive from a certain lovely young girl, a letter in a dainty pink envelope sprinkled lightly with cheap scent, its reverse (while we are in the mood, dare I say its sweet little backside?) being sealed with the acronyms LOL and SWALK in smudged red biro. The latter meant ‘Sealed With a Loving Kiss’, a beautiful, tender and rhythmically poetic formula, albeit the acronym itself surely sounds like something one might bring up if one had a serious throat infection. And as I say, the previous 1966 endearment meant ‘Lots Of Love’. The problem was that half a century later, on Facebook posts and in occasional jokey emails, I would come across LOL in a repetitive context that made little sense to me if any. Had I thought laterally and intelligently, I would have asked someone if LOL had more than one meaning, but instead I persisted in my Neanderthal Beatles era translation, and felt that there was some LOL nuance in these 2017 posts that I just didn’t get, partly because I was thick, and also of course because I was old.

At length and only a few months ago, I did ask someone for clarification, and discovered that these days it means ‘Laugh Out Loud’ haha, and with that, all of a sudden, all those fb cheerleaders and wild night out anecdotes began to make a cumulative sense. But I have to say I felt as thoroughly and outrageously cheated by LOL having 2 contrary and unrelated meanings, as if someone had told me Christmas Day could also be on the 5th of May, or that the genius of an actor Brad Pitt actually had the birth name of Pontefract T Wilberforce.

And so it is that at this point I lay down in public and for all who have a sense of semantic justice, an acronymic challenge. If LOL can have 2 meanings, then I am going to invent an acronym here and now that has 3 of the buggers, all of them seemingly appallingly bawdy but instead simply vehement expressions of visceral amazement, consternation or chagrin.

My 3-pronged acronym which I patent now before the watching world at 10.25 Greek time Monday 19th November 2018, is…with a momentous and monumental roll of drums…

FMS!

Yes, that’s right, effing FMS…

This acronym signifies in the most subtle and minutely calibrated spectroscopic range of passionate human sentiment, all of three quite different things:

F–k me stiff!

F–k me sideways!

F–k me senseless!

As I say, none of these magnificently heartfelt interjections are remotely bawdy, nor are they paraphrased directives from the ancient Hindu erotic  manuals the Kama Sutra or the Ratirahasya of Kokkoka (it’s not my fault the great man’s name was that). They are all instead passionate and uninhibited expressions of astounded nay dumbfounded nay incredulous wonderment.

And let’s face it, a bit of passion wouldn’t go amiss with anyone, would it, whether it be carnal passion or the aesthetic variant. Whoever you are and wherever you are, that is…

Would it?

LOL

A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

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

A KINDLE ON AMAZON I MUST GO

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

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

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

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

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

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

But believe you me, I do…

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