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Thursday 26 September 2019

Review - Alan Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Sillitoe: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alan Sillitoe
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (4*)

What made me pick this volume of nine Alan Sillitoe short stories so soon after reading Saturday Night and Sunday Morning? I must be a glutton for punishment. Most of the characters are distinctly unpleasant.

Best known is the title-story filmed in 1962 by Tony Richardson with Tom Courtenay in the leading role as shown on the cover. As with Saturday Night…, it is a bleak, post-war, working-class Nottingham story in which a difficult-to-like hero is in other ways admirable. Borstal boy Colin Smith explains his personal philosophy around events leading to his incarceration and the emergence of his natural athetic talent. Selected to compete in a race he is sure to win and thereby enhance the reputation of the borstal, he throws it in the home straight to spite the Governor because he believes it the right thing to do. What was there for him to go back to? Nothing: not even running.

The same sense of hopelessness runs through the whole collection. All the stories are set in similar sad and underprivileged backgrounds. Some might better be described as vignettes. This is the suffocating world of working-class people before post-war consumerism and expansion of opportunity. You wonder, like Ian Dury or Kate Atkinson perhaps, how close you came to any one of these lives being your own.

Like the penniless schoolboys in Noah’s Ark who swindle and steal to afford the rides at Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Did one of them later become Colin Smith? Or the boy who watches impassively as a man attempts to hang himself On Saturday Afternoon. Or Frankie Buller, a young man with what we would now call a learning disability, who leads an “army” of younger boys in military games.

Or, later in life, what about Uncle Ernest, a damaged and solitary middle-aged man who befriends two undernourished schoolgirls in a café simply because he is lonely and wants to help in exchange for friendship? Of course, no one trusts his motives, especially the police. Or Mr. Raynor the School-teacher, who ogles girls in the draper’s shop across the road from his classroom window? Or the postman in The Fishing-boat Picture who lives alone after his wife leaves him for a housepainter but years later returns to visit every Friday evening, leaving so much unsaid that she never reveals her true circumstances? Or Lennox, whose wife walks out with the kids when he comes home in a mood and picks a fight after watching Notts County lose? Or Jim Scarfedale, a working bloke, who, after the breakdown of his marriage across the class-divide, returns “to his mother’s apron strings” and turns to molesting little girls?

There but for the grace of God! But I was born as the world began to open up, and passed to go to Grammar School, which created chance after chance despite poor exam results and false starts. The trouble is, contest it as you might, it can turn you into something of a snob. Is that why I don’t like the characters?

Not a comforting read, but a strangely satisfying one.

Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

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Thursday 19 September 2019

Kitchens Old and New

New Kitchen 2019

New Kitchen 2019 New Kitchen 2019

The new kitchen; not quite finished. Still awaiting new blinds and flooring. I also have bits of painting left to do such as the skirting board, ceiling and around the windows. At least the two weeks of takeaways, eating out, ready meals and washing up in the bathroom are over. Zoomers can get to work on the pictures and scrutinize our minutiae: Who is Katharine? Who takes max strength congestion relief? Who’s the Big Mug? (it’s me) Good job we haven’t hung up the calendar and notice board yet. It all feels much lighter and roomier than the worn-out, twenty-five-year-old configuration it replaced, although even that was luxury compared to kitchens of old.

Grandma's kitchen 1964

Here is my grandma in her kitchen in 1964; in fact, it was not just the kitchen, it was the bathroom and the laundry room as well. The (what is now known as a) Belfast sink was the only place in the house with running water. It was not so many years since they had to fetch water from the village pump. The tall screen on the left was unfolded and placed across the alcove for privacy when washing. It would be mostly in cold water: the electric geyser was a relatively recent addition. Previously, water had to be heated on a large, black and silver, cast-iron, coal-fired range to the left of the camera and carried across the room. Look at the damp on the wall behind her.

For many years there was no flushing toilet. She had one outside by this time, but originally there was only an earth closet, the contents of which would be shovelled through an opening in the wall into the adjacent open-roofed ‘ash midden’ and burnt with the household rubbish.

She brought up a family of four there.

Mum's kitchen 1963

My mum’s kitchen around the same time is better equipped but not dissimilar. There is a top-loading washing machine on the right, a gas cooker on the left, and gosh, is that a mixer tap? By this time water was heated by an electric immersion heater in the bathroom water cylinder. There was also a Baxi back boiler behind the front room fireplace.

The sink and draining board are enamelled and mounted on formica/melamine cupboards. Above is a high wooden shelf for pans, and behind were floor-to-ceiling drawers and cupboards which were built-in new with the house in the nineteen-twenties; the other houses in the row had the same. The plastic bag hanging on the wall contains ‘silver paper’ (aluminium foil) and milk bottle tops for charity. Like her mother, she has a mirror hanging above the sink. The walls are tiled and free of damp and we have a separate bathroom, but by today’s expectations, it’s still quite basic.

Mum's kitchen 1972

Later in the sixties, we moved to a house with a serving hatch and an Aga cooker: real ‘Abigail’s Party’ stuff. But it still had the same kind of laminate drawers, cupboards and worktops. My mum now has a food mixer and there is a stand-alone spin dryer beneath the work surface in the corner. We also now had a fridge. I have no recollection of what the dispenser-like gadget screwed to the wall of the serving hatch could have been. It was a nuisance keeping the Aga going all summer, but in winter the house was always warm despite a vague but persistent sulphurous smell from the smokeless fuel. Mum didn’t like it. It was too like cooking on her mother’s coal-fired range. She eventually replaced it with a gas cooker.

Leeds kitchen 1973-74

On to the pigsty of the shared house in Leeds where I lived in the nineteen-seventies: if anything a step back. Along with 40% of other households, we had no fridge or washing machine, and domestic freezers were almost unknown in the U.K. I think the black and white picture was taken to prove Brendan did sometimes do the washing up.

The room is populated by a chip pan, dirty cups and beer glasses. The black and white picture contains a ubiquitous Russell Hobbs K2 electric kettle, although I think we lost that when someone moved out because the later colour picture has one that heats on the gas cooker.

Look in the other direction and you see what I mean by ‘pigsty’. No one ever did any cleaning. The formica/melamine unit with its gathering of nineteen-seventies tins and packets is simply disgusting. No wonder we had mice. The medieval toy soldiers above the cellar door, shields glinting in the flashbulb, came free inside breakfast cereal packets.

Leeds kitchen 1974

My kitchen standards have clearly come a long way in fifty years. No doubt, commenters such as arty Rosemary from her ex-gamekeeper’s cottage in the South-West of England with it's beautiful grounds and one hundred elegant objects will say of the new one (going by what she so woundingly said of our garden because she’s Northern and has to say it straight): “It’s not much of a kitchen is it?” She will explain it simply follows the humdrum nineteen-fifties American form originating in Benita Otte’s nineteen-twenties Bauhaus design: the seamless look of built-in worktops and cabinets with integrated appliances. She might even go so far as to say the flat panels in the cabinet doors clash with the raised panels of the room door.

Actually, we like the rounded corners and sage green doors. Mrs D. has been saving up for four years to pay for it. The only thing is, it cost more than a whole house would have cost in the nineteen-seventies.

Friday 13 September 2019

The Exorcist (reposted by beetleypete)

Pete Johnson (the prolific WordPress blogger beetleypete) generously offered space for guests on his blog. I jumped at the chance because he has almost 5,000 followers. I wondered whether there might be interest in my piece about the film The Exorcist originally posted over four years ago during my early blogging days. In all that time it had less than 200 views. Pleasingly, it turned out to be one of Pete’s most viewed posts this week with a cacophany of comments. [my spelling is corrected in the comments below]

beetleypete's guest post invitation is here

the reposted post on Pete's blog is here

The Exorcist

When my son was about eight, he wanted to know what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too frightening to say.”

No eight year-old would let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too terrifying to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ....”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks ....
Read original post (~1200 words)

Sunday 8 September 2019

Köhler’s Apes

rotary clothes drier or whirly

Blogger Tom Stephenson described recently how he retrieved a small, ancient metal blade that had mysteriously appeared on an out-of-reach flat roof by using a long pole and a magnet. I could sense his immense satisfaction in the flash of insight into how to retrieve it and it gave me vicarious joy to read how the blade popped on to the magnet for him to haul it in. Köhler’s apes would be impressed. This is how culture, in its widest sense, is passed on. 

Wolfgang Köhler, if you’ve not heard of him, was one of those psychologists whose ideas made the study of that subject a pure delight before it became all numbers and logic. He described how insight and problem-solving are not confined to humans; how chimpanzees, after puzzling a while to gain insight, would stack boxes or join two sticks to retrieve bananas that were out of reach. They do it for the thrill of it. I could go so far as to say that dogs enjoy doing clever things such as learning the name of a toy, and Phoebe our cat certainly looked pleased with herself when she realised she could open the sliding doors between the back and front rooms (that’s the dining room and the sitting room for those of you who don’t speak Northern) in order to sleep on the settee and be sick on it, but scientific psychologists would call that anthropomorphic nonsense.

Moments of insight seem to stick in our memories. The photograph above shows our rotary clothes line, a well-made and robust one (now over thirty years old) brought from a previous house in Scotland where they call them whirlies. Blow the ‘h’ and roll the ‘r’ to say it properly. When we moved to our current house there was a rusty old clothes post concreted into the middle of the lawn. We wanted rid of the ugly thing to make a hole for the whirly. Help, insight. Were we a match for Tom Stephenson and Köhler’s apes? (NB not “the Coca Cola apes” as a student once wrote in an exam.)

base of rotary clothes drier or whirly

Half an hour with a hacksaw cut off the clothes post at ground level leaving a suitable hole. It was too wide, but more patient hacksaw work cut down a length of old road-railing pipe to make a sleeve which fitted perfectly into the hole to accommodate the whirly. Very satisfying! 

But there was a further problem. Things used to fall down the hole when the whirly wasn’t in. On one occasion a nauseating smell was found to be coming from the decomposing body of a bird that had fallen to the bottom. We got the poor thing out with a stick, disinfected the hole with Jeyes Fluid and used a threadbare tennis ball to cover the open top.

Then Phoebe the cat started to play with the ball. She liked nothing better (more anthropomorphic nonsense) than knocking it off the hole and chasing it around the garden. If we didn’t put it back things still fell in.

I don’t know what made me look down one day when about to drop in the pipe to put up the whirly, but something caught my eye at the bottom of the hole. It seemed to be moving. I crouched down to peer in. I had to get a torch. There was a large frog at the bottom.

Problem: how do you rescue a frog from fifteen inches (37 centimetres) down at the bottom of a narrow pipe without harming it?

Phoebe the cat, from the comfort of her nest of garden sacks in the garage, suggests hooking it out with your claws and ignoring the screams. The idea that frogs feel pain is felineomorphic nonsense. She also thinks Köhler’s apes must have been stupid. Why stack up all those boxes when you can just spring up on your hind legs, and who would want a banana anyway? As for Tom Stephenson, well, why didn’t he leap across from his balcony and bring back the blade in his mouth? It was one of her friends who left it there in the first place after using it to poke frogs with.

Are there any other suggested solutions to the problem?

Thursday 5 September 2019


Isn’t it irritating when a blogger blocks you simply for questioning his rather biased and inflammatory political posts through polite and reasoned comment? Suppress all dissent! I didn’t even disagree entirely. Shame because otherwise he writes quite interesting posts. I suppose I will have to unfollow him.


Sunday, 8th September. He has now moved on to another post and I have unfollowed him, but emboldened by the nothing but supportive comments below here are links to some of the posts I take issue with [LINKS NOW REMOVED - SEE BELOW]. He refuses to engage in any discussion of his one-sided arguments based on twisted evidence taken out of context. I find some of these views offensive but here are the links and you can decide for yourself [LINKS NOW REMOVED - SEE BELOW]:

Post Postscript

Friday, 27th September. Links removed because the whole blog has now been made private by the owner. He must have had a lot of grief from a lot of people.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Review - V. S. Pritchett: A Cab At The Door and Midnight Oil

V. S. Pritchett
A Cab At The Door and Midnight Oil (3*)

I first picked up Midnight Oil by chance during a formative period around 1974 and was taken by Victor Pritchett’s determination to become a full-time writer. What would it be like to chuck your job to live in a garret in Paris? Would I dare do that? (Spoiler Alert – No).

V. S. Pritchett (1900-1997) was a British writer and literary critic known particularly for his short stories. He worked in a London leather firm until around 1920 when he took a job as a shop assistant in Paris. He later lived as a writer in Ireland, Spain and America, and was literary editor for The New Statesman.

These two volumes of autobiography tell of his nomadic early life around Edwardian London and Yorkshire (the family moved 18 times before he was 12), his work in the leather trade, struggling to write in Paris, his travels in Spain and his experiences in Ireland and America. He paints vivid, perceptive, meticulously observed character portraits of his larger than life relatives and others he knew over these years, although (possibly my fault) I was not all that interested in some of them.

The old-school prose demands a lot of concentration. Revisiting it again was something of a marathon but anyone interested in what it was like to grow up in the early twentieth century, or life abroad in the twenties and thirties, might find it fascinating.

see also: V. S. Pritchett's obituary in the New York Times

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews