DYLAN THOMAS AND FLORA PURIM

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

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1988

1988 was an infinitely significant year for us inasmuch as Annie and I, two born and bred West Cumbrians, with all the modest but cumulative horrors that that implies, moved into the tender heartland of beautiful rural NE Cumbria, often referred to as the Debatable Lands. West Cumbria can best be summarised as all grimly decaying industry (Workington’s massive Bessemer steel  complex is long gone and hence the melancholy decline of the town’s docks, one of whose very few shipping customers a few years back was Iran), its replacement by the polluting monoliths of the Sellafield nuclear facility and Allbright and Wilson detergents, and an obvious historical deprivation in the form of 2  far longer 20th C economic recessions than anywhere else in the UK. Some 50 miles off, the beautiful Debatable Lands are thus named as they are so close to the once disputed Anglo Scottish Border and serene and tranquil as they are these days, in the 16th C were the playground of Border reivers or murderous cattle thieves (cattle being the most convenient exchangeable wealth of the time). The place was so anarchic and the border demarcations so unstable the Debatable Lands were obliged to have their own system of ad hoc law, exacted by the English and Scottish Wardens of the Marches, who met and parleyed and traded bargains and exacted reparations.

None of this bloodshed and arson (the reivers generally liked to set their enemies’ farmsteads on fire) was remotely to be sensed in the remarkably pure and vivid air when we moved to an exquisite and tiny cottage on the B road between the market town of Brampton and the handsome little village of Hethersgill, gateway to wild and lonely Roadhead and even further flung Penton and the perennially enigmatic phenomenon of the Scottish Border. We were to stay in this tenderly poetic area for 21 years in Annie’s case (she died in 2009) and for a quarter of a century in mine, whereafter I relocated to Kythnos, Greece and as you know all the rest is history. We moved from ugly Carlisle into the flaking blue painted idyll of the little cottage in June, and Annie being 33 we decided after 10 years marriage it was time to grow up at last and start what is called a family. A year later on the 18th of June,1989, my daughter Ione was the incomparable result, but before she was conceived, Annie had a miscarriage and was greatly affected by the shock, the sadness, the memory of the bleeding, and the wounded sense of loss. Once Ione had been conceived Annie was reasonably enough terrified of a second miscarriage, but come around Christmas when she was 3 months pregnant, she began to relax, and showed her old uproarious comic sense, her unflagging powers of mental concentration and connoisseurial artistic acuity, by buying me the best collection of jazz LPs as Christmas presents that any man has ever had from any woman ever. They included the latest Gary Burton, the master vibesman, John Surman the Somerset sax player and composer, the finest innovations of US guitar ace John Schofield and finally a wondrous Chick Corea album Tapstep with Brazilian Flora Purim on the first track singing ‘I Want To Do The Samba’ which would surely raise anyone from a 100 year chronic catatonic state and have them dancing their legs off believe me.

My publisher Aidan Ellis had put my, at times, aeronautic and explosive coming of age novel Kin out in 1986 and it had garnered some good reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph and some virtuoso sneers in The Observer and Independent. Then a year later AE published my story collection Pleasure which resulted in a beautiful and rapturous review in the Telegraph and by wondrous chance a year later the same reviewer, the novelist Elisabeth Berridge, was one of the judges for the Dylan Thomas Award for Short Stories. Thus it was that an obscure regional writer published by a tiny Oxfordshire press confounded the literary world by receiving a coveted prize, a reception in Soho, and a £1000, when up against the major names of the day (the previous winner had been the far more celebrated Rose Tremain). I have as you may know fictionalised this award ceremony in my online novel Passion for Beginners which can be read on these pages in the May 2016 archive. I believe I have also mentioned somewhere else the excellent and true story of the legendary Hethersgill farmer’s wife, Hazel Beatty(she has the same birthday as me no less) who when the Dylan Thomas Award success was printed in the Cumberland News got her wires crossed and went round telling everyone that the West Cumbrian lad down the road had just gone and won the Nobel Prize…

It was in fact the brilliant and extremely courageous Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) who won the Nobel in 1988, but given that in 1990 another neighbour in the Debatable Lands seriously believed that with me and Annie and baby Ione living in an elevated 17th C farmhouse at the top of a lofty hill, that I the writer must therefore be Salman Rushdie (born 1947) in hiding from the fatwa…given all that, it was not so extraordinary really.

Finally I need to add that after a year of very painful writer’s block, I embarked in that beautiful North Cumbrian cottage on Radio Activity, A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions which was finally published 5 years later after 35 rejections, including one by a fucking bloody (excuse me) Cumbrian publisher. I started the book in October 1988 when Ione had been inside Annie’s womb for a month, and I wrote the novel during much of her gestation. The two things went chronologically hand in hand so to speak. And touchingly Radio Activity is my very favourite of all my 10 books just as now aged 28 Ione will always be my very favourite of all my creations.

BOOKS (from my 1988 diary)

The Black Soul by Liam O Flaherty (who was raised on the Galway Aran Islands where this novel is set)

The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alisdair Gray (doyen of innovative Glasgow writers)

The Captains and the Kings by Jennifer Johnston

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

One Man, One Wife by TM Aluko (both this and the Lessing above were published by Heinemann African writers in the old orange covers)

Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens (the 1994 TV version with Tom Wilkinson outstanding as the hypocrite Pecksniff was a real joy to watch)

1982 Janine by Alisdair Gray

The Way Into the Labyrinth by Alain Danielou

The Game by AS Byatt (with which I struggled. Her sister is the novelist Margaret Drabble with whose books I also struggle)

Torquemada by Benito Perez Galdos (specially purchased for me by Carlisle library)

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Getting Through by John McGahern (the late great Irish novelist and farmer who I met once at one of his readings in Grasmere)

When The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Illywhacker by Peter Carey (the narrator is 117 years old)

Midcentury by John Dos Passos (I did not enjoy this at all. Henry Miller once said that he had no time for this author)

My Father and Myself by JR Ackerley (who also wrote Hindoo Holiday and was inordinately in love with his dog)

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

The Distracted Preacher and other Tales by Thomas Hardy

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A Woman of the Pharisees by Francois Mauriac

The Maharajah by TH White (author of The Once and Future King and inspiration for Walt Disney and his Sword in the Stone)

Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford

Farewell Victoria by TH White

A Voice Through the Clouds by Denton Welch (about his being tragically crippled by a car when riding on his bike)

Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

About the Body by Christopher Burns (fine stories by my writer friend from Whitehaven)

The Pyramids by William Golding

The Prussian Officer by DH Lawrence

The Pasha’s Concubine by Ivo Andric (great and searing stories by the Bosnian writer and Nobel winner 1961)

Barnaby Rudge by Dickens

Slow Train to Milan by Lisa St Aubin de Teran (one of my favourite contemporary writers)

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

The Moon and the Bonfire by Cesare Pavese (who committed suicide aged 41 in 1950)

Stravaganza by Paul Smith (author of The Countrywoman and this is about his time as a travelling actor)

Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov (famous for Oblomov, his classic novel about the man of malaise)

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

 

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RUDOLPH VALENTINO AND THE BLASKETS

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

 WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1987

A hell of a lot happened to Annie and myself in 1987, which you will note is precisely 30 years ago. At the end of it we migrated from West Cumbria to North Cumbria, which might sound nothing remarkable but the difference between the 2 areas is more or less cosmic. Ignoring the 6 months we spent in glittering but essentially morose and lacklustre Carlisle the county capital, beautiful rural NE Cumbria was the opposite of the decayed industrial west with its obligatory economic dependence on British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield, and Allbright and Wilson (Allbright and Beautiful) detergents near Whitehaven. The half year we spent in Carlisle (it started in December 1987) was a kind of slow motion purgatory and was again a result of wishful thinking run large. We talked ourselves into hoping that its Denton Holme area just down from the railway station would be a kind of city village comparable to something like Cowley Road in Oxford or Camden Town in London. Fat chance. It was all grim warehouses, faceless gable ends, atmosphere free cafes, dull shops, and a tangible and very possibly historically despondent ennui (Carlisle has an extremely bloody history as the Anglo-Scottish Border capital to boot) …and we could not believe the intolerable sense of anti-climax.

Leaving Cleator Moor near Whitehaven involved such laborious matters as selling our terraced house, the only one we had ever owned, which amazingly we did in about 10 minutes of it appearing in the property pages of the Whitehaven News. We asked for the maximum price of £17,000, and the couple gave us it without a murmur, for the top end of Birks Road was exactly where they had always wanted to be. We paid off what we owed on the mortgage and were left with about £1000.I am proud to tell you that at 32 and 37 we were young enough in heart to say to hell with the property ladder, and to book a fortnight’s holiday in Morocco instead. Before that though I had the business of transferring Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996) to a capable new editor and it was to David Almond (born 1951) that I turned in the spring of that year. I knew him as a gifted short story writer who had no editing experience, but I was sure his creative talent would take care of that, which right enough it did. So it was that I edited the first 6 fiction anthologies, he did the next 12, and then I took it back and did the last half dozen. Two years later in 1998 David made it big on both sides of the Atlantic with his debut novel the remarkable and completely flawless Skellig, which was marketed as a children’s book, though any adult not a clod would thrill to it as a major work of uncategorizable but very tender and poignant literary art. Remarkably I can still vividly recall that when I had David over to Cleator Moor from his native Felling on Tyne, Newcastle to talk about the changeover, I made him South Indian chakunda chawal (beetroot rice flavoured with coconut and dry dhal) and various other spicy and succulent vegetarian dishes.

That year we went on a camping holiday to Ireland, and though it was June we struck an anomalous and glorious heatwave. We went from Stranraer to Larne in Northern Ireland, drove through Belfast observing trundling tanks and racing British soldiers as we went, and made detours through the small and wholly sleepy and innocuous towns of Omagh (the county town of Co Tyrone) and the capital of Fermanagh, Enniskillen. That same year in amiable little Enniskillen on the 8th of November there was the Remembrance Day bombing by the Provisional IRA, which was supposedly intended for British soldiers but killed 11 locals and wounded 63 more. Then the same loveless savagery 11 years later on August 15 1998, when a car bomb planted by the Real IRA in Omagh killed 29 and injured some 300 citizens. As a specialist in small North English towns (Cockermouth, Cleator Moor, Malton, Brampton) where I have spent about 30 years in all, I try to imagine the same inferno being enacted there in Cumbria and N Yorkshire, for whatever purported ideology, and find it more or less impossible.

By contrast towards the end of our trip we arrived at the beautifully tranquil Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, Eire. Dingle itself is a confident and prosperous little town with some stylish bookshops full to the brim with translations of the Blasket Island literature, meaning the writings in Irish about the island way of life of Tomas O’Crohan, Peig Sayers and Maurice O’Suillabhain who together with everyone else abandoned their Blasket homes and moved to the mainland in November 1953. Despite Flann O’ Brien’s merciless Gaelic satire of their simple and lyrical prose in his The Poor Mouth (An Beal Bochd, 1941) they are beautiful and moving accounts of a poverty stricken, incredibly hard, but inevitably richly human existence, all of them laced with a fine and gentle comedy. And though much of our time there in Dingle and the Blaskets I fictionalised in my 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels, I did not describe our stay in the village of Ballyferriter which is close to Dunquin where the summer tourist ferry for the Blaskets departs.

We found an excellent camping place in Ballyferriter which was in fact the spacious lawn of a smart bungalow on the edge of the village. It cost 5 punts a night in 1987 which wasn’t cheap, but it had spotless showers, a perfectly flat turf, added to which it was a glorious heatwave, so we lay outside the tent bebbing bargain wine while the proprietor and his family ate their dinner outside too, drinking patently expensive French red and talking to each other in the vesperal heat in Kerry Irish. It was the strange combination of that sonorous and delicate language one associates with poverty and oppression, and that posh and pricey cosmopolitan wine that we found quite so affecting (as you probably know under British rule speaking Gaelic inside an Irish school was for long proscribed and incurred a beating, as vide the Jams O’ Donnell scene in The Poor Mouth).

Just down the road in the pub which doubled as a village shop, things were very different. Annie and I sat in a quiet corner with our draught Guinnesses and accidentally found ourselves opposite a very strange man indeed. Aged about 40 and straight out of An Beal Bochd, he had a huge and bulbous nose, a pork pie hat, looked more tanned and Mediterranean than Irish, and had an extremely vacant if oddly expressive sort of gaze. It wasn’t so much he was trying to ponder the significance of his life as he knew it, but that he found such exhausting pondering altogether imponderable, and yet he couldn’t stop his eternal hopeless staring into an apparent abyss. As ontological counterpoint to this and to keep himself in touch with simple and comforting realities, he spent a full half hour poking his stubby finger up his whopper of a nose, extracting the results and staring at his knobbly massive hand to pass judgement on his expert excavations.

I say he spent half an hour but I think he would have conducted another twenty years of cogitative quarry work, had not an embarrassed young villager who obviously knew him well, barked in fierce exasperation.

“For fuck sake Eamonn, will you stop doing that crazy bloody poking up your snout? You’ll drive everyone out of the fucking pub if you don’t.”

Eamonn turned to survey him blankly and it took him measurable seconds to work out what he was being requested to do. He genuinely had nil notion that he might have offended anyone with his reckless bogey hunt, and he looked rather like a child who has had his favourite but objectionably noisy toy taken away.

BOOKS (from my 1987 diary)

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (then not well known, now a bit of a cult novel)

Midnight Mass by Paul Bowles (husband of the excellent and sadly neglected writer Jane Bowles)

The Polyglots by William Gerhardie

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blas Ibanez (made into a film starring Rudolph Valentino)

Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg

Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa (also a Peruvian politician)

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Darling and Other Stories by Chekov

Days of Greatness by Walter Kempowski

Howard’s End by EM Forster (qv the superb film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson)

The Dresden Gate by Michael Schmidt (editor of PN Review and director of the wonderful Carcanet publishing house)

The Spider’s Web by Paul Bowles

The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (an author much admired by Graham Greene)

In the Shadow of the Wind by Anne Hebert

Long Ago by Ivan Bunin (Nobel Winner 1933)

To The North by Elizabeth Bowen

Crab Apple Jelly by Frank O Connor

Nothing by Henry Green

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Colonist by Michael Schmidt

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

Great Expectations by Dickens (I shall never forget the excellent 1959 BBC TV version with Dinsdale Landen as Pip and Colin Jeavons as Herbert Pocket)

Granta Travel Anthology

The Hoggarty Diamond by Thackeray

The Heroic Age by Stratis Haviaras (essential reading re the Greek Civil War and the US’s first use of napalm upon fleeing Greeks)

Islandman by Tomas O Crohan (see above)

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Day of the Fox by Norman Lewis (one of the world’s finest travel writers)

The Moro Affair by Leonardo Sciascia (harrowing account of a kidnapped politician murdered as the Italian government refused to pay his ransom. Sciascia is an important Sicilian writer)

The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland by Frank O Connor

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (I always struggle with Henry James)

Praxis by Fay Weldon (I enjoyed it on a first read and then taught it to Extra Mural Newcastle University students and soon realised I didn’t rate it very much at all)

Blood and Sand by Vicente Blas Ibanez (the real and nauseous truth about the disgusting evil of bullfighting. Did you know for example that among sundry other cruelties they cut the picador horses’ vocal chords so you can’t hear their screams?)

In Custody by Anita Desai

The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch

You Can’t Get Lost In Cape Town by Zoe Wicomb (Virago book. Zoe and I both taught at West Cumbria Tech College in 1977)

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

A Journey to the Seven Streams by Benedict Kiely (very good stories. Kiely wrote the best ever historical survey of Irish fiction in 1950. Long out of print alas)

The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

La Douleur by Marguerite Duras (in English despite the title)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes

Pages from Cold Point by Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky brilliantly filmed by Bertolucci in 1990)

August in July by Carlo Gebler (son of Edna O Brien)

The Countrywoman by Paul Smith (sad and beautiful autobiographical Irish novel broadcast later as Radio 4 Book at Bedtime)

Women in Love by DH Lawrence

Everyman Anthology of French Short Stories

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (powerful and disturbing stories concerning Deep South lynchings and the like)

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (rejected 32 times before being accepted by Herbert Read at Routledge)

Cry the Peacock by Anita Desai

Annie by Paul Smith (both this and The Countrywoman were reissued by Picador after Smith was a largely forgotten writer)

If This Is A Man by Primo Levi

If On A Winter’s Night by Italo Calvino (not the two ‘if’s in successive titles)

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

 

 

 

CHERNOBYL HITS CUMBRIA

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

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1986

1986 was the year that parts of my native Cumbria were affected by international nuclear radiation, not just by the long established indigenous variety that was sited at BNFL, Sellafield near Whitehaven. On April 26 there was a catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl power station in the then Soviet Ukraine, and the radiation billowed all over Europe and got as far as the fells of South Cumbria, principally around the  Broughton in Furness area, and within spitting distance of Sellafield. Enhanced by a heavy fellside dew at the time, there accrued anomalous amounts of East European radiation in the area, and for months the Broughton farmers were unable to sell their lambs because of contamination worries. 2 years later I satirised some of this in my extravaganza Radio Activity – A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions (1993, reissued 2004) though some of the more outrageous scenes in that novel were I promise you based on real events.  At the start of the book a lady called Jessie Twentyman relates how she was walking the Furness fells up by Ulpha on the morning of April 27, 1986. The next morning to her amazement she feels horribly bilious and starts to vomit something that looks like orange paint. Her doctor after some consultation with his medical books and a few tests declares it to be radiation sickness. Grotesque as it sounds, that was not my invention at all, but it happened to a friend of my wife’s best friend who lived in nearby Santon Bridge.

Annie was commuting an hour and a half to Carlisle every day, to a demanding new job as training officer for Cumbria Social Services. I was slogging away single-handedly editing Panurge fiction magazine and also writing my second novel Kin. We were ready for an atmospheric  and truly relaxing holiday and in June opted to visit Coll and Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. Coll as you may know is tenderly fictionalised for children as Struay in the excellent Katie Morag stories of Mairi Hedderwick (born 1939) who has spent much of her life there. We decided to camp to save money, and in pre-internet days I enterprisingly rang the Glasgow met office and asked would it weatherwise be better to go to Coll the second or the third week of June. The extremely courteous gentleman was adamant that the second week would be best, and we took his advice, drove up to Oban, and took the Calmac ferry the next day. Coll then as now was so small it did not have a police station (the nearest was at Tiree) meaning the sole pub in the port of Arinagour followed absolutely nil licensing restrictions (elsewhere in Scotland they were still closing at 10pm and during the afternoon from 2 till 5). Rather as in Kythnos, the Isle of Coll’s heavy boozers who spent all day in the bar would get into their cars and brainlessly waggle their vehicles the modest distances to their houses. Meanwhile it tickled Annie and me inordinately that on the map what were called Coll ‘townships’ always turned out to be a single croft. There was a small amount of Gaelic spoken, not as much as on Tiree, and of course on Mull nearer the mainland it has vanished entirely. There were also myriad tender beaches reminiscent of Cycladean Greece but with clover scented machair grass instead of the ubiquitous Kythnos scrub. Depressingly there were a handful of middle aged immigrant outsiders from Glasgow and Lancashire, retired tradesmen in the main, with serious and very strident alcohol problems (they literally never left the pub unless it were to sleep).  With their startlingly unpredictable and invariably foul mouths they were painfully intrusive in the tiny population which was all of 195 in 2011 (though that was pleasingly 30 more than in 2001). Listening to their repetitive and drunken babble, it hit me between the eyes that the fantasy idyll of locating to a really tiny island (say Muck in the Hebrides or Arki in the Dodecanese or Ag Efstrati in the North Aegean) could easily prove to be a claustrophobic nightmare.

But our meteorology man had got it wrong, at least for our first 3 days. On arrival we camped on a raised mound by the church in Arinagour, and through night it brilliantly monsooned so that Annie and I woke up floating in our doss bags like two outsize matchsticks.  We moved into the guest house of a lovely old widowed lady called Morag for 2 nights, and she introduced us to her Wee Free kirk friend Miss McKay who was 85, bewhiskered, pitifully shy of the two English, spoke only Gaelic in Morag’s house and was ferociously pious. She would not hang washing out on Sunday nor would she make herself a cooked breakfast on the Sabbath. She also gossiped to Morag about the new locum Church of Scotland vicar who went into the pub to treat his wife to a birthday meal, and thus soiled his cloth. That same locum was an amateur scholar of Hebrew, and in an Arinagour café he was much fascinated to chat to me about my Sanskrit and Old Persian studies at Oxford. He expressed a serious interest in learning Old Persian himself (the extant rock inscriptions of Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes in effect) so that when I got home to Cleator Moor, West Cumbria, I posted him my Old Persian primer as a timely gift. The Arinagour manse where they were billeted (they’d migrated here from Glasgow for the summer months) was still lit by old gas mantles and when we visited them for coffee it was as if I myself was stepping back some unfathomable 30 years.

BOOKS (from my 1986 diary)

Doom by William Gerhardie

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth by Tolstoy

An Irish Journey by Heinrich Boll

Dede Korkut (the great Turkish Ottoman epic in translation, Penguin Classics)

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (very funny)

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Lamb by Bernard McLaverty

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

The Country Wife by William Wycherley

The Spendthrift by Benito Perez Galdos

A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty (one of the finest story collections ever written)

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell, 1904-1996, all  of whose books are in Virago and all of them wonderful apart from her very first novel The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, published when she was 21)

Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost

The Grim Smile of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Tete Blanche by Marie-Claire Blais

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Bosnian Story by Ivo Andric

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

The Poor Plutocrats by Maurus Jokai (19th C  Hungarian author)

Little Dorrit by Dickens

Desert Love by Henry de Montherlant (author of The Bachelors)

Fragments from my Diary by Maxim Gorky

The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide

St Lawrence Blues by Marie-Claire Blais

Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Perez Galdos (Penguin Classics)

Snakewrist by Christopher Burns (the impressive debut of my writer  friend from Whitehaven)

Europe of the Dictators by Elizabeth Wiskemann

A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiongo

Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

May We Borrow Your Husband? by Graham Greene

Frank O’Connor’s Autobiography Volume 2

Sappho by Alphonse Daudet

Dombey and Son by Dickens

The Way of all Flesh by Samuel Butler

The Maias by Eca de Queiroz

The Death of Ahasuerus by Per Lagerqvist  (Nobel Winner 1951)

The Medlar Tree by Giovanni Verga

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi (made into my favourite film of all time starring Gian Maria Volonte, Shown on RAI TV in 1978)

The Relics by Eca de Queiroz

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

Tarry Flynn by Patrick Kavanagh (very funny)

Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever (the story of her Dad John and his horrendous problems with booze and his sexual orientation)

Hawsksmoor by Peter Ackroyd

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL SHE WANTED WAS TO BE LOVED FOR EVER

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

ALL SHE WANTED WAS TO BE LOVED FOR EVER

My Russian friend Vasily came to see me in some consternation the other day, and he also came bearing his laptop. He is a waiter at the restaurant at the far end of the Kythnos port; vividly blue eyed, muscular, 45, long-divorced  from his Moscow wife, and though you couldn’t accuse him of being conventionally handsome he has a teasing and engagingly boyish grin.  Vasily’s problem like half the world’s is that he wants a nice little girlfriend, and he is pig sick of getting nowhere with the few single and supposedly available Greek women on Kythnos. The Albanian women are all married and with kids, of course, and though there are 2 good looking Russian girls on the island, they both have Athenian boyfriends. Hence it was that with a struggle he had located a dating website devoted to expatriate Russians called Cosmoslav, and soon discovered that there were worthwhile numbers of single Moscow, Vladivostok, Verkhoyansk and other Russophone (from Uzbekistan and the other -stans) women living in e.g. Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras, as well as far flung Thrace and Rodopi on the Bulgarian border.

Vasily had only been on the site a few weeks, and had been doing quite nicely with chatting online, sending countless passionate ‘winks’ to anyone as he put it not an absolute gargoyle, a bit of chortling and hilarious Skyping, and so far a single solid invitation to meet for coffee next time he was in Rodopi (in fucking Rodopi, why not Katmanfuckingdu!). What galled him more than anything though was that roughly 10% of the women on Cosmoslav chose to write their profiles and always copious checklists of wishes and prohibitions vis-a-vis acceptable men, in English, not in Russian. Vassily’s heavily accented English was an existential reality right enough, and it obviously helped in the restaurant with all those foreign yachties, but it was unarguably basic and tended towards things strictly alimentary. Hence he knew the English words: sugar, tomato, scrambled, whisked, beaten, stuffed and braised, but didn’t know the words for ear, lips, mouth and neck, which might have come in acceptably handy in an amatory context. The reason why this woman here whom he fancied like nobody’s business, and whose user name was Murmanskgal, was writing in English, was plain enough according to angry Vasily. She was flagrantly fishing for a rich Russian expat or maybe a Russky educated in the USA so now a posh professor teaching in Greece who liked an anglophone Slav beauty to be draped across his arm when he was poncing round Kolonaki or the swisher bits of Saloniki.

Worse still the cruellest of ironies was that it tended to be those 10% of English speaking Russian women who most passionately stirred Vasily’s heart and libido, more than the nice and sensible but frequently wondrously plain and sometimes aggressively squinting lassies who only spoke Russian and Greek. He pointed to his laptop and right enough Murmanskgal really was a beauty. Fine blond hair, delicate bone structure, arched inquisitive eyebrows, a tender little pout of a smile. Vassily then indicated her English profile message and said he had googled 2 of these sodding English words that started her list of necessary essentials in a man, and a) one did not exist, and b)the other one seemed to mean tossing a bloody ball, hence made no bloody sense whatever.

Murmanskgal had written:

WISH FOR ENTERNAL LOB. LIKES TRAVELLING WITH MY DESIRED ONES. I WISH TO FIND AN ADORABLE SENSUOUS MAN AND A GOOD HEART. NO BAD BACKROUND PLEASE!

Vasily snorted, “I don’t understand that first fucking sentence at all. Why can’t she write in Russian the beautiful little torment?”

I said, “I’m not surprised you’re baffled. So am I. There is no such word as ‘enternal’. Unless she means ‘internal’ and that still makes no sense.”

“But look, Englishman, I understand all the rest. Especially ‘sensuous’ and I like that word. She means she likes to have a bloody good f…”

“Yes,” I concurred.

“And I also worked out she likes to go travelling and having it off with the guys she fancies, that word ‘desired’ eh? But ‘backround’ what the fuck is that? I know the word ‘backside’ cos I’ve heard it on loads of Yankee and British films. ‘No bad backside’? Does she mean she doesn’t want a guy with an ugly arse?”

I sniffed. “No no. Not that at all. She actually means ‘background’!” Then I struggled for some measurable time with my haphazard and always elusive Greek. “Background means personal history, your life story. She doesn’t want a criminal or a junkie or a… “

He looked very virtuous as he swore. “Balls to that! The worst I’ve ever done is fiddle the change at the taverna once in a while. With those pissed Scandinavian yachties, no one else, man, and they would only drop it in the bog if I didn’t. But what the hell does she mean she wishes for ‘enternal lob’. I’ve googled and googled them and it’s driving me mad.”

Suddenly I was seized with the intimation of a monstrous laughing fit, as in a flash the Murmansk woman’s message hit home. I have never done a cryptic crossword in my life but I am sure it needs that degree of lateral imaginativeness and the ability to discern obscure semantic association…or equally it could just be that in Russian and Greek and Bengali and several other languages including that found sometimes in the works of Charles Dickens, the letters b and v are effectively interchangeable.

I said, “She means eternal love. She wants what we all want, Vasily! She wants to be loved by someone for ever and ever. ‘Lob’ is her version of love, you see. So the positive thing is you can relax and be confident that her English isn’t much fancier or fluent than yours is.”

He grimaced his indignation. “Bloody little show off. I’d love to give her…”

“What? A smacked backround?”

“No no! She is so bloody tantalising and so beautiful, dammit. Just a night, no, just an hour, no ten minutes, no…”

But I was still consumed with a mad and shoulder-shaking hilarity and he looked to me for explanation.

“It’s the word ‘lob’,” I said. “Like you said, as a verb it can mean throwing something like a ball. But as a noun and when spoken in many rude and coarse male circles especially…”

His ears pricked up very hopefully. “Yes?”

“It can mean an mm…it can mean an erection…”

“You’re kidding!”

“Not at all. When I was a schoolkid you heard teenage boys all the time boasting about having ‘a lazy lob’ for the whole of the day. Meaning they had a dick on permanent…”

“Fuck,” sighed Vasily. “On permanent standby?”

“Exactly. So what gorgeous Murmanskgal is actually saying, is that she wishes for a man with an eternal erection, Vasily.”

“Eh?” he gasped. “You what!”

“A permanent hard on. As with some of those Indian yoga experts, the Tantric adepts especially, the ones who have sex for hours, days, sometimes longer. And by dint of all that Hatha Yoga they never ever come.”

Vasily looked me square in the eye, shrugged his shoulders and abruptly closed his beautiful new laptop. Then without the slightest effort he said to me in flawless English:

“Fuck that for a game of cards.”

Later I learnt he had heard it on a British film and it had stuck in his mind as these things do.

 

 

 

THE GRASSING SEASON AND THE ALENTEJO

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

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1985

By the end of 1985 my wife Annie had done 2 years of gruelling field social work in Whitehaven, West Cumbria, UK, best known as the nearest sizeable town to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd at Sellafield, then famous for its occasionally leaking plutonium 238, and she definitely needed a break (she moved sideways into social work training as it happened). Her job introduced me to some terminology I’d never heard of such as ‘the grassing season’ meaning those hot summer days when people on deprived Whitehaven council estates would sit outside and become visible to each other for extended periods. This might well stimulate them to snoop on someone who had just possibly shopped them to Social Services or to Social Security the previous year, and the social work office was continually receiving such virtuously hostile and of course anonymous phone calls. Given that Margaret Thatcher had with gleeful vengeance destroyed the British coalmining industry the year before, this absence of basic working class solidarity was yet more evidence of the divide and rule motif writ large.

One day it was all too much for Annie. She was talking in a house on Greenbank estate to a spectacularly feckless unmarried young couple both 18 years old and with a new baby. Neither parent had any manifest parenting skills (meaning they didn’t hold the baby nor talk to it nor sing to it nor play with it) the TV bizarrely was blaring with Open University advanced physics, and both of them were chainsmoking and drinking Fine Fare Coca Cola and repeating the same point, viz that Joe’s horrible Mam could have offered support with the baby and thus given them a break to go out of an evening, but she wouldn’t, and she gave the support to Joe’s sister and her child instead. Annie was dizzy with the sheer futility of it all and was about to cut short the interview, when she turned to behold their brand-new terrier dog called Woof (which they did hold, talk to and play with) doing a moist and extensive shit inside her open handbag. She yelped her horror, at which Woof yelped back, then looked in frozen wonder at the indifferent couple who saw it as par for the course no doubt. Annie tore off with minimal explanation and drove home as fast as she could. She did what anyone else would have done and got into bed at 2pm and put the blanket over her head and lay there waiting for a gradual recovery.

My first novel Samarkand was published on June 1st 1985 and amazingly it got a review in the Times Literary Supplement on the very day of publication. It was a very bad review by Christopher Hawtree who worked on London Magazine and who’d loved the comic stories I had published in LM, but was unprepared for a solemn and largely plotless and poetic novel about 1950s Cumbria. He said it reminded him of the endless lists in old Freeman’s Catalogues from the 50s, and needless to say I was considerably crushed. My publisher Aidan Ellis was so incensed he rang the TLS and told them he wouldn’t let them have his Marguerite Yourcenar novels for review, because of this cruel demo job from Hawtree who he called by another and rudely punning name …but of course he soon relented re the jewel in his crown of Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) author of the 1951 Memoirs of Hadrian

I was incredibly heartened and excited when the novel was taken by BBC Radio 3 for concert interval readings, otherwise Samarkand got a single glowing review in the British Book News, another relentless excoriation in The Observer, and that was it. By this stage I had embarked on Kin my second novel and there was so to speak no going back. In any case we had the distraction of our summer holiday in Portugal, paid for in large part by the fee I got for a story Master of Ceremonies that was printed in Stand Magazine. We started off in the city we loved and where Annie had had her first romantic taste of abroad, Faro, the  pulsing yet also beautifully somnolent capital of the Algarve. In nearby Tavira one night we overheard an obese and ill-shaved Englishman of about 30 making the interesting complaint that the disco he’d attended the previous night hadn’t been much fun as it had been ‘too full of Portuguese’. From there we bussed it to the handsome capital of the Lower Alentejo , Beja, a city I’ve visited several times since. Beja’s landmark is its sturdy looming castle whose keep is called the Torre de Menagem. I still have a photo from 1994 of grinning Ione aged 4 perched victoriously on one of the huge cannons outside the keep. Ione and I revisited Beja a year after Annie died in 2010 and we also took a bus to Elvas, a spruce and dignified Alentejo town famous for its succulent olives, which Annie and I had visited 25 years earlier. In 1985 our spotless hotel room had had no handbasin but instead a large ceramic jug decorated with roses and filled with water, and we felt that we had stepped back in Alentejo time in the most graceful and natural manner possible. The dusty and humble bus station then was right in the middle of Elvas, while in 2010 a new state of the art mausoleum had been constructed a half hour walk below. The garrison fort was still visible across the flat scrubland, and I also preserve a photo of Annie sat on one of the town walls with the fort in the distance. She was 30 years old in 1985 and was very beautiful with her fine blonde hair, subtly sculpted cheekbones, and a look of endlessly gentle kindness. Not evident in that photo however was her addiction to the belly laugh and the wildly comic, and on those matters in our 30 years marriage we had endless common ground. Over the years we went into fits over the TV comedy of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, Gregor Fisher’s Rab C Nesbitt, Dylan Moran’s Black Books, the Glaswegian trio Karen Dunbar, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill in Chewin The Fat, Morwenna Banks in the Scottish series Absolutely…and of course her favourite novel At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’ Brien and her very favourite film the ecstastic and hilarious and gloriously rude and appalling Amarcord (1973) by Federico Fellini.

BOOKS (from my 1985 diary)

Lantern Lecture by Adam Mars-Jones (his debut work and a book of massive promise)

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

When Things of The Spirit Come First by Simone de Beauvoir

A Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

Foma Gordayev by Maxim Gorky (no one reads Gorky’s novels these days and they should perhaps be ashamed of themselves)

The Artamonov Affair by Maxim Gorky

The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Don Quixote by Cervantes

Firebird 4 (prose anthology)

The Confession of Nat Turner by William Styron

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

Smoke by Djuna Barnes

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Man’s Estate by Andrew Malraux

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Resurrection (for the second time) by William Gerhardie

The Wapshot Scandal by John Cheever

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

My Apprenticeship by Colette

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (I am re-reading it at this very minute)

The House of Ramires by Eca de Queiroz (I saw the great man’s birthplace in Povoa de Varzim  near Porto, in the 1985 trip described above)

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells (a real hoot and it is nearly as good as Wells’s Kipps)

Some People Places And Things That Will Not Appear In My Next Novel by John Cheever

The Golf Widower by John Cheever

Gleanings from Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn

Party Going by Henry Green

My Host the World by George Santayana

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Wind, Sun and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery

The Harpole Report by JL Carr

Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg

The Sin of Father Amaro by Eca de Queiroz

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz

Stories by Liam O’ Flaherty (his many fine novels e.g. Famine, Skerritt and Mr Gilhooley are on the whole disgracefully neglected in the UK )

The Informer by Liam O’ Flaherty

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Shame by Salman Rushdie (I prefer Shame on balance to his Booker winner)

When the Tree Sings by Stratis Haviaras (another essential author and a Greek who mostly writes in English)

Set This House on Fire by William Styron

 

THE BIG LEBOWSKI

The next post will be on or before Sunday 1st October

THE BIG LEBOWSKI

The Big Lebowski (1998) is probably one of Joel and Ethan Coens’ best known movies, even though it did badly at the box office on release and received very mixed reviews. It has since achieved a considerable cult status, meaning everyone under the age of 75 has watched and admired it on Netflix, DVD or on telly, though just possibly for the wrong reasons. To look to an enlightening parallel, on this side of the Atlantic the British movie Withnail and I (1987) has such enduring and rightly earned charisma partly because it brilliantly showcases 2 spectacularly feckless out of work actor layabouts, and fag and booze desperadoes, played by Paul McGann and Richard E Grant (interestingly Grant is teetotal in real life). I suspect for similar reasons many of Lebowksi’s fans are enchanted by that handsome hunk Jeff Bridges (born 1949) playing the layabout’s layabout, Dude Lebowski, a bone idle and affable Los Angeles dope smoker, long haired and bearded, who is permanently clad in the same top-heavy cardigan. Dude’s only sign of human activity (aside from occasionally glugging milk out of a bottle) is regularly playing bowls with his irascible pal Walter, a Vietnam veteran, played with truly astonishing virtuosity by John Goodman (born 1952), Coen Bros regular, and erstwhile husband in the US TV comedy Roseanne (1988-1997).

There are 2 actors of genius in this superb and very funny movie, and in my view Bridges is not one of them. They are Goodman and another Coen regular John Turturro (born 1957) who mind-blowingly plays a strutting peacock of a Hispanic bowling fanatic called, wait for it, Jesus. He is artless arrogance personified and clad in a lurid purple tracksuit, he lifts up his bowl and licks it with the end of his tongue as if it were a certain part of a certain woman (not quite that, we later learn from Walter). He also berates his opponents, the three bowling buddies Dude, Walter and Donny (Steve Buscemi) with the delightful admonition, ‘We are going to fuck you up the ass!’ Later in the movie Turturro and his pal are holding their bowls in 2 suspended purple match vests, and, buffing them to a shine so to speak, and needless to add it looks like nothing so much as demented masturbation.  The disturbing foil to all this is that Walter discloses their opponent is actually a convicted paedophile, and under certain Californian laws has been obliged to knock on every door in his neighbourhood informing people of his crime. The film actually retro cuts to show him doing just this and looking far from swaggering.

Joel Coen has said that the movie was inspired by a Raymond Chandler novel, meaning a necessarily tight narrative and an impossibly complicated plot, which he adds is ‘ultimately unimportant’, most obviously in this case because the film is intended as a wild comedy and not a poker-faced thriller. It is set in LA in 1991, when Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski) is mistaken for one Jeffrey Lebowksi, an elderly, reclusive and paralysed millionaire played with wonderfully vehement bitterness by David Huddleston (1930-2016). Dude is assaulted, meaning his head shoved repeatedly down the toilet, by two heavies employed by porn magnate and loan shark Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who idiotically, given his shabby house and his scruffy cardigan, take him for the old millionaire. The rich Lebowski has a much younger wife Bunny who has been running up large debts to Treehorn , and they have come to ensure the debts are paid. Once Dude explains the confusion, they stalk off without apology but one of them cannot resist pissing all over the Dude’s favourite rug.

‘No man,’ Dude vainly beseeches him. ‘Don’t pee on my rug, man.’

He later confers with Walter and Donny at the bowling alley about the soiled rug, and is inspired to go and seek a sizeable compensation from his namesake. But while they are talking Walter spots another player with long white hair who is to set challenge them in a forthcoming league match, and observes that his foot has gone a minute distance, less than an inch, over the line. Goodman as the angry Vietnam Vet with his hacksaw haircut, heavy and threatening build, and steely rectangular specs, now magically evokes in Walter someone sitting over a volcano of poisonous traumatic memories and subterranean rage. As Long White Hair protests, and even treacherous Dude says it doesn’t matter, the fuming veteran pulls out a gun and informs the opponent that if doesn’t abide by the league rules he will be ‘entering a world of pain’ a heraldic phrase to be repeated throughout the movie. And it is worth emphasising here that what is mesmerising about Goodman’s acting isn’t just the verbal delivery from this damaged volcano of a man, but his little facial quirks and twitches and occasional look of forlorn sadness. It is surely what takes acting into the superleague (qv Brad Pitt and on occasion Leonardo di Caprio) and leaves me for one wondering how the hell anyone born a human being and not an uncannily robotic mimetic genius, can do it.

The plot is deliberately labyrinthine, but here goes. Dude visits the millionaire namesake (with his factotum played very capably by a clucking and besuited Philip Seymour Hoffman) to get some compensation for his pissed upon rug, but is rebuffed. As he leaves he slily steals a more expensive rug and then bumps into voluptuous Bunny the millionaire’s seductive young wife by a swimming pool. While he leers over her hungrily, without preamble she sighs:

“I will suck your cock for $1000.”

Penniless Dude sadly departs at this bargain offer, but not long after Bunny’s old husband contacts Dude to say she has suddenly been kidnapped and he wants Dude, for a fee, to deliver the million dollar ransom in a briefcase and to identify whoever the culprits are. Dude consents to this but mad Walter rudely elbows in on the drop and fearlessly substitutes, much to Dude’s indignation, a briefcase full of his own dirty underwear. However just before Dude and Walt embark on the ransom run, yet more thugs break into Dude’s bungalow and beat him up and steal back the stolen rug. It transpires that they were hired by the millionaire’s daughter Maude who is played with great brio and a perfectly posh UK accent by Julianne Moore (born 1960) and she wishes to have some urgent discussion with the Dude. Her first appearance in the film is a startling one, as they meet in a deserted warehouse where she works as an avant-garde collage artist, and Dude watches her soaring down to spray paint the paper below him from her high velocity flying trapeze. Her own version of a factotum is played by David Thewlis (born 1963) the first rate UK actor (see the astonishing and overwhelming Naked by Mike Leigh) and here he has a shaved head and a truly mad giggle for added eccentric effect.

Maude requests Dude to get the ransom money back (with a commission of 10%) on the grounds that Bunny is secretly one of Treehorn’s porn stars, and that her Dad has been milking the family fortune to support her luxurious tastes. Meanwhile a severed green toe, supposedly Bunny’s, arrives at the millionaire’s mansion, and simultaneously a gang of German Nihilists invade Dude’s to find him in the bath. They tell him they are Bunny’s kidnappers, that they want the ransom, and to drive home the point they have a ferret (called ‘marmot’ in the US) which they release into the bath. This must be one of the most famous and queasily hilarious scenes in recent film history, Jeff Bridges protecting his manhood against a dripping ferret, and it brings to mind an outrageous Frank Zappa album, which doubtless Bridges himself played in the 70s, entitled Weasels Ripped my Flesh.

It is not really spoiling your anticipation to say that there are multiple and serial lies ingeniously informing the byzantine plotline. The German Nihilists with their stage accents are in fact friends of Bunny and the whole thing was staged to get money out of her husband. The millionaire was just as devious, so that the ransom bag with supposedly a million dollars was empty, for the old Lebowski was very glad to be rid of his ravenous wife who he really hoped had been kidnapped.  In the meantime, Dude’s old jalopy with the supposed ransom has been stolen from outside his house. Once it is recovered, Dude finds of all things a schoolboy’s homework in the back of the car, whereupon he and Walt hurriedly trace the boy to his home and confront him with his theft. The lad says nothing throughout the dual interrogation, much to Walt’s fury, so that eventually the veteran explodes once more to this mere stripling:

“You are about to enter a world of pain!”

It  so happens that there is a luxurious sports car outside the house, which Dude and Walter assume is there courtesy of the missing million bucks. Walt races out and taking a lever from his car proceeds to smash it to pieces. The schoolboy is remarkably unmoved by all this but one of his neighbours races out and bawls that that is his brand new car that he bought today, and in revenge he starts to smash Dude’s old jalopy to pieces. Thereafter Dude’s adventures become ever more feverish and include a miniature hallucinatory film within the film, after he is fool enough to accept Treehorn’s invitation to meet at his club. He swallows a proffered liqueur of White Russian and before long is unconscious and having a compelling dream involving leggy, desirable Maude and a game of ten pin bowling. He then wakes up in a beach suburb police station where Treehorn had dropped him, and is told to keep out of town and given a good beating to send him on his way. He desperately flags down a taxi and the black driver soon kicks him out for complaining about his choice of music, The Eagles. At the same time, he sees Bunny driving by in a luxury sports car and notes that she has all of her toes, contrary to the blackmail message.

Dude returns to find that his house has been trashed, but he also discovers Maude there, and she swiftly seduces him and decides to stay the night. She tells him she wants to conceive a baby, at which he is truly horrified but she assures him he will have nothing to do with it once it arrives. Later Dude takes Walter to confront Lebowski over the empty briefcase, and there is a blackly comic scene where Walter accuses the old man of faking his paralysis, before bear-hugging him and commanding him to walk, whereupon Lebowski collapses and flails wretchedly and hopelessly on the floor.

The finale comes when the Nihilists turn up outside the bowling alley and set Dude’s car on fire. For once Walter’s traumatised rage finds a practical outlet, and he rolls up his arms, grabs the ringleader and proceeds to bite off his ear, which he spits victoriously into the sky. At this Donny = Steve Buscemi is so appalled that he takes a heart attack and dies. The end of the film sees the Dude and Walter scattering his ashes, which predictably blow back all over them, then they resolve to go and play a game of bowls, which of course is always the answer to everything.

The film I believe would be an unblemished comic masterpiece were it not that Jeff Bridges is so seriously miscast. Which is to say that Bridges doesn’t exactly do a bad job of Dude, but neither does he do a good much less an outstanding job. He plays the part of an overgrown and amoral yet likeable slob, but without depth or resonance or any hint of stereoscopic nuance. Brad Pitt would have known how to really play Dude as Pitt can act as anything and anyone he likes, while Bridges though excellent in certain roles, really struggles with comedy and especially the burlesque and uproarious varieties.

Finally, and rather incredibly the film has a cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott), a wise and inordinately handsome old guy with a Stetson and a huge and ornate moustache who appears very little (thank God) in order to dovetail the action and to announce the film’s message at various points. I didn’t believe a word of him nor his salt-free and sentimental cowpoke wisdom and his final tender benediction on the Dude and Walter as bowling players. That said, I fully expect to watch The Big Lebowski at least two or three times a year for the rest of my life.

ANOTHER WORD FOR ARSE

The next post will appear on or before Sunday October 1st

ANOTHER WORD FOR ARSE

Never underestimate the charismatic power of language, and especially that which you have borrowed from another person, who might just treacherously have made it up themselves in the first place. As a variation on which, there is reported the frequent and mysterious utterance of a woman who works in an office in the north of England, but who was not born in Great Britain nor was her first language English. She regularly uses a very archaic West Cumbrian dialect word and asks her colleague to ‘skop’ her for example a pencil sharpener. The word skop means ‘to throw’ and is a mimetic one of old Nordic origin and refers to the elliptical leg motion of a pawing horse. The foreign lady doesn’t know any of that of course, she just thinks it is a very nice and apt word and she uses it often. The key to the mystery as you might have guessed is that her colleague is my daughter Ione who works in an office in Leeds, and it was Ione who first thoughtlessly asked her to ‘skop her’ a box of paperclips, and thus started the bizarre linguistic transfer rolling. However things aren’t quite as simple as that, as Ione was raised in rural NE Cumbria where no one ever uses the word ‘skop’ and the villain of the piece is in fact her Dad me who grew up near Maryport on the Solway Firth, West Cumbria. I have employed that verb for most of my life (I’ve always been prone to throwing things, including tantrums and towels in) and not only did I pass the word on to Ione, I still use it here on a daily basis in Kythnos in 2017, at least when like many a writer I am poetically monologuing to myself, or alternatively discoursing to my attentive cats or alternatively talking to Ione when she visits me and I ask her to skop me the low sodium/elevated potassium salt from the far end of my capacious dining table.

Ione was visiting me at the start of this month and that was when she told me about the foreign lady saying skop. She currently shares a house with 4 people all born in the late 1980s, and some of the very dubious in some cases invented words that she got from me, and which I first heard in respectively 1957 and 1977, are circulating in that Leeds house, some 60 and 40 years later. Thus of her 4 housemates, the single male aged 30 in Ione’s house, will regularly refer in 2017 to his arse, and to everyone else’s, by employing the very peculiar term ‘jid’. The semantic route is that I first heard it from my 6-year-old playmate Toots (not his real name) in our West Cumbrian pit village in 1957. He would say charming things like ‘I hez an itchy bliddy jid’ and would proceed to rectify (oops, nearly) the problem by appropriate vigorous scratching and pummelling underneath his shorts. Since then I have never heard anyone else in the world use the term jid, other than in imitation of me who in turn started to imitate Toots back in 1957. Toots got most of his charismatic words and especially the less polite ones from his older brother Reg who chainsmoked at the age of 12 and had remarkably puffy eyes and the rawest gruffest voice I have ever heard. It was from Toots I also got the words which I still use at the age of 66, ‘tassy’ and ‘chitter’, both superlatives meaning ‘great’. They were both Reg words and I would hazard that tassy sounds as if possibly colloquial French though perhaps only used by colonial outpost soldiers in Northern Gabon in one particular garrison in the winter of 1947. How Reg became privy to that Gabon Gallic mess table argot remains to be elucidated by the most rigorous of philologists and professors of linguistics and I wish them a most salubrious bon voyage.

On that analogy, the backside word ‘jid’ sounds decidedly Arabic and for colonial connections we might look to the former Aden protectorate (ha ha) now Yemen. Reg in his lengthy all of 6 mile travels between Workington and Maryport might just have met a squaddie who had served in Aden and been stationed in a hill village where the weirdest of dialect words had circulated including ‘jid’. As for ‘chitter’ it sounds to me definitely of Indian origin, possibly a dialect of Hindi and we can look to Reg perhaps one day hearkening in amazement to a retired old geezer from the Indian army of the Raj. I still regularly lapse into Tootsese or Regese when in the company of an educated British friend or student visiting me here on Kythnos, and exclaim as we bask on an exquisite and deserted beach, This is bloody tassy! or This is absolutely chitter! Not once have any of them asked me for qualification, as they know what I mean without a translation, meaning that Tootsese and Regese are effectively universal languages like say Volapuk or Esperanto.

Finally there is the case of secondary neologisms of a truly surreal kind and which fascinatingly connect Cumbria and Kythnos, aka obscure regional England and obscure Cycladean Greece. The phenomenon originates innocently even puerilely enough, somewhere around the summer of 2000 when Ione aged 11 and me aged 49, started making inane diminutives out of many a word, as if we were gung ho WW2 RAF pilots or 1920s partying hedonists minus the Charleston. Like them we would chop the given word and then add ‘ers’, so that the quiet market town where we lived Brampton became ‘Brammers’ and the nearby Lanercost with its ancient hallowed priory became absurdly ‘Lanners’ and both the country or anyone with the word Holland as a surname, ludicrously became ‘Hollers’. And yes re the latter, one or two classically Cumbrian surnames of a dolorous and comical cast, actually did the trick themselves, so we didn’t need to add, only subtract. Hence it was that one of Ione’s 12 year old acquaintances called William Mumberson, became the extremely onomatopoeic Willy Mumbers as Mumbers ne  Mumberson was indeed always a doleful little bloke.

Fast forward now to the summer of 2016 when Ione and I were lying on the beach nearest to the port here. It is called Martinakia and a whole 3 amnesic years had elapsed without either of us giving it its due Roaring Twenties abbreviation. Until one inspired day that is.

“Martinakkers,” said Ione very suddenly and in a revelatory tone, and it was as if she had created a whole world or possibly a whole universe as she spoke.

Just as inspired I said swiftly:

“He was a nice guy, but he was always bad with money. Divorced 3 times as he drove all his women mad. He lived down Millom way near Barrow in Furness and that didn’t help.”

She looked at me questioningly and a split second ensued.

“Marty Knackers! “I said. “So called because of his grubby and dishevelled appearance. As if he either worked for a knacker’s yard or was fit for entering it himself. That’s what all his wives said, anyway.”

And all the rest is history.

For non-UK readers. The word “knacker’s” can refer to either a slaughter house for old horses, or, minus the apostrophe, to the male testicles. From the former comes the verb-derived adjective ‘knackered’ often used in the politest of companies to mean ‘tired’ or ‘exhausted’