Which Geronimo?

We have reached the time of year where people inevitably start to intone about its being the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

So it might be and so it might not. There either are ‘mists’ or there aren’t, it seems to me, and what happens in Plaistow when the westerly wind gathers up all the filth from the West End and dumps it on us is best described by some other noun. ‘Mellow fruitfulness’ is more problematical. ‘Mellow’, at any rate for those of us who lived through the nineteen-sixties, is a word that denotes a state of mind, usually brought on by inhalation of the more old-fashioned narcotics, that is benignly fuddled to the point of silence: a state that is pleasant for oneself and boring for everyone else. The only problem with ‘fruit’ is that most of that has come and gone by the time autumn arrives. Strawberries for instance are particularly associated with Wimbledon, at the start of the summer. Did the poet (Keats & Shelley, I recall) have conkers in mind? Probably too hearty. Blackberries? Insufficiently mellow. That only really leaves apples.

But mellow apples? It doesn’t really make sense, does it? Maybe Keats & Shelley meant not ‘mellow’ but ‘yellow’ apples, indicating that French Golden Delicious – yellow fruitfulness – were meant rather than red English Coxes. For what it is worth, their fellow versifier Wordsworth was keen on all things French and wrote a poem to that effect (Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, etc…) though whether this extended to their revolting apples I forget.

All that puts me in mind, by way of contrast, of Rob’s quinta in the south of Portugal, where, very far from mist and mellow fruitfulness, the late summer sun shines fiercely on the whitewashed walls and the twice-dried figs are intense and tasty and as unlike French Golden Delicious as it’s possible for a fruit to be. Or so I remember it all, and so I imagine that it still does and they still are: it can’t have changed that much in under a week

Now I think of it, Keats & Shelley probably meant mushrooms, a truly autumnal crop to whose mellow qualities another poetic chum, Coleridge, may well have introduced them, maybe as a device for keeping more of the opium – the good stuff – for himself. A good mushroom does after all foster a feeling of mellowness in every sense, whether it is eaten raw in a field to the accompaniment of repetitive music and thousands of people dancing, or taken on toast, or fried in butter as a component of a full English breakfast. It is not strictly speaking a fruit, but Keats & Shelley were bound by the rules of poetic metre, unlike the idle and half-witted vers libre merchants of today, and ‘mellow mycologicality’ just wouldn’t have scanned.

Bringing Rob’s quinta to mind raises in more urgent form the question that will have been troubling persistent readers: why would I want him to take his whitewashed walls on which the late summer sun shines so satisfactorily and cover them with a reproduction of a member – or members – of the Native American community?

All I can say is that it has been an aspiration of mine for as long as I can remember. Every time in my life that I have acquired a house with garden walls I have proposed to my current life’s companion that one of them should be covered by an artistic representation of a member – or members – of the Native American community. Every time, I could already see the image in my mind’s eyes, brooding over the herbaceous border, gazing hawk-eyed towards Isleworth or wherever it was. Every time, this proposal has been rejected with a snort. When therefore I made it to Rob, expecting the usual response but fired up by a mental image of a noble head, a corona of eagles’ feathers, twice life-sized, flaring above his zinc outdoor dining table, I was surprised and delighted when rather than snorting he asked, ‘Which member – or members – of the Native American community?’

”Possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both,” I said breathlessly.

He gave this answer a full measure of consideration.

“Buffy Ste. Marie goes without saying,” he said. “She is not only a fine-looking person, fit to be represented in a mural, but an icon for our times and a role model for all who pass through my quinta in the years to come. A scrutiny of the tracks available on Spotify confirms that she is the only member of the coffee-house generation of Greenwich Village in the early nineteen-sixties to have preserved her integrity throughout the period since and still to be making provocative and ravishing music today. And I include Dylan. But – Geronimo the Bedonkohe Apache Chief or Geronimo the friend of El Cid and latterly quisling Bishop of Salamanca?

“Possibly both.”

“Maybe it could be the Apache – but with a crozier.”

Ines, Rob’s wife, and Lucy, who was also staying with us, both of whom have a facility with draughtsmanship that Rob and I lack, were asked to consider design possibilities. As a temporary measure we bought from an Ecuadorian gypsy, whom we encountered at a fair in the local town, a cheap representation of a Chief, done on cloth, and we attached it loosely to two poles and placed them against the whitewashed walls. This served as a warning against undue speed. First, when the wind got up, the cloth tore away from the poles. Secondly, once one had noticed that one of the man’s shoulders was twice the length of the other it spoilt one’s enjoyment of the overall effect.

And then we met the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community on the beach and the planning went up a level altogether.

Back in London, brooding on Keats & Shelley’s mellow mushrooms, a connection struck me. I texted Rob:

“Oh, and Carlos Castaneda’s friend.”


Norbert Dentressangle and the Perfect Wave

Portugal is full of exiles. Notoriously, many are British. Some of these are not a savoury sight, clad in grubby shorts, flushed red in face and eye, sitting in bars to which Portuguese people no longer go and complaining. Less well known and much more dignified is a small group of Cherokee ancestry, who live near the beach to which we went. They speak a strange patois, half Cherokee and half Portuguese. Rob has acquired a nodding acquaintance with this tongue, which may prove invaluable for artistic reasons which I will come to later. He was therefore able to understand that some of these people, who had come to the beach to watch Bella surf, had given her a name according to their own tradition. They call her ‘Swims Like Seals’.

As we drove back to England, Swims Like Seals lay in the back seat of the car, morosely dreaming of the Perfect Wave.

The better half has an ‘app’ on her phone, which tells us where to go. A helpful man describes the towns and roads along our route. He is not strong on the pronunciation of foreign place names but he does his best. ‘Castile’, for example, perhaps the proudest word in a proud language, is rendered as ‘car stealer’. Nonetheless he is generally reliable. He took us off the motorway to see the centre of Rouen, but that was quite nice as we could then say that we had seen the cathedral. The worst bit was in Seville, where at the critical moment the connection died. You might imagine Seville: timeless, stiflingly hot, silent, the smell of the orange groves and the muffled peal of cathedral bells; a tradition of cruelty, mystery and faith. The Seville bypass, though, on which we found ourselves mid-morning on a Monday, was not like that. Huge lorries hurtled by us as we hove to on the hard shoulder; the better half gripped the steering wheel as if it were the throat of the nice man from the ‘app’ and shouted, explaining that it was all my fault. But we sorted it out: we looked at a map.

The motorways, as in England, were full of lorries. They all look similar, same number of wheels in the same places – no doubt as a result of EU regulation – except for the dressing. This includes irritating cartoon figures and improbable advertising claims. As a result I always find the vehicles of Norbert Dentressangle reassuring. They are a sober claret colour, and decoration is confined to his name and website address. There is a modest logo, a road device cleverly incorporating the letters ‘ND’. One can imagine Norbert being bullied into this by an alliance of his eldest son, Jean-Hippolyte Dentressangle – more imaginative than sound perhaps – and his accountant.

“You have to move with the times, ND,” they may have said.

“Go on, then,” he would have replied gruffly – or ‘Va t’en’, as they say in French.

I imagine Norbert as taking an old-fashioned and fatherly interest in the welfare of his drivers. He can’t relax at night until he knows that they have all arrived at their destinations and are accounted for. Preferably in his view this means tucked up in bed, although he knows that for those travelling through Spain the attractions of the roadside ‘hotels’ in that country – thinly disguised brothels – may have been irresistible and some of the lads may not be tucked up in their own beds at all but pumping away at some lazy Spanish whore. Norbert takes the view that ‘boys will be boys’ but he doesn’t mention the Spanish ‘hotels’ to Mme Dentressangle.

“Come to bed, Norbert,” she calls, kindly if perhaps a touch impatiently.

He sighs and closes his big ledger. He taps it reflectively with his big haulier’s fingers and then goes upstairs to join her.

What is it, incidentally, about the Spanish? They really have become rather unbuttoned. Whatever happened to Catholic repression? We stopped at one point to get something to eat. The sign on the road had suggested a sensible motorway facility with a choice of M&S or Burger King. Instead it took us to an appalling inn, where, because Bella was a health and safety issue, I had to stand with her in the rain outside while lorry drivers puffed the smoke from vile-coloured stogies at me. The better half went in to get a slice of sausage and some chips and she reported later that the bar was full of members of the sex-worker community, presumably waiting until the drivers had finished their sausage and their smoking and needed relief.

Of course my musings about the Dentressangle family are probably wide of the mark. Maybe ‘Norbert’ is not a Christian name at all but a surname recording a merger or acquisition at some stage involving Norbert interests and Dentressangle ones. And the name ‘Dentressangle’ gives one some pause. What can its derivation be? Presumably ‘dent’ or ‘tooth’ is involved, and ‘étrangler’ or ‘strangle’. That would be a concern. No doubt a visit to the website would clarify all, but one would rather not: one would rather live with one’s dreams.

Anyway it provided an hour’s distraction as we bowled along through the anodyne landscape of Les Landes. Swims Like Seals slept on. Rob, I like to think, has already benefitted from his fortuitous introduction to the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community. During our time at his house I urged him to relieve the plain white of his veranda wall with a large mural painting of a member – or members – of the Native American community: possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both. I was surprised and pleased that he liked this proposal: ‘took it on board’, as we are encouraged to say these days. I like to think that even now he is crouched with one or more of them on the beach, examining rough drawings in the sand: an aquiline eye here, a feather there.


There is a risk, amid all the challenging discussions of anthropogenic climate change, of overlooking the continuing movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. These are no longer considered anthropogenic, so far as I know, although the Roman Emperor Justinian famously considered that homosexuality caused earthquakes. That may be a view gaining traction (as they probably call it there) in the University of East Anglia. I considered doing a Freedom of Information Act search to find out, but then, I thought, what’s the point?

What we do know, even without a Freedom of Information Act search, is that there is tectonic movement and as a result some places are getting higher and some lower. One of the saddest things that I have read recently was that some mountains that until recently were not high enough to be Munros (as they call peaks in the Highlands of Scotland that are over three thousand feet in height) have as a result of tectonic movements become Munros.

The Highlands of Scotland are of course arrayed around a volcanic rift valley, and so it is not surprising that if any mountains in these islands are to grow or diminish they will be Scottish ones.

It’s not clear whether, if tectonic movements are indeed caused by the activities of the gay community, it is the Scottish gay community with which we should concern ourselves or the wider gay community acting, as it were, at a distance. I called the University of East Anglia’s press office to ask their view but they said that their lips were sealed.

In any event that is something that we must leave to The Science (as I believe they call it in the University of East Anglia). One imagines white-coated and dedicated men and women calibrating incidents of sodomy against millimetric spasms of mountains hither and thither. It is not in any case my concern here, and it is not why I found the news that we had new Munros saddening.

Some people, men mainly, have always found the Munros a challenge. They have resolved to climb every one of them. Many have succeeded. Many have made things more challenging for themselves by, for example, climbing the Munros at a trot, rather than striding as is more conventional. (Most Munros I believe are smooth on top and can be climbed without resort to crampons and stout ropes, unlike foreign mountains.) All these men have no doubt finished the job with a sense of relief and usually a relaxing of the disciplines required to attempt the feat in the first place. Some have grown old buoyed up with a quiet sense of achievement.

And that is the sad bit. Suddenly, when they are too old or out of condition to do anything about it, a new Munro or three pop up, and they have no longer climbed them all. Maybe they climbed everything that comprised the authentic category of Munros at the time, maybe they climbed the mountains that have since become Munros before they were Munros, but it’s not quite good enough. The quiet sense of achievement evaporates.

We all have our Munros. I know that I do. I am occasionally nagged by the thought that my collection of Buffy Ste. Marie CDs is complete except for the doggedly unavailable Live in Toronto. And I know that even if I did find a copy of Live in Toronto some other live album, available perhaps only in Japan, would sneak into the Amazon lists and then become unavailable before I had noticed.

I was musing about these things as I sat by myself in our local fish and chips restaurant. Skating on Ice (very popular in the fish and chip community for obvious reasons) was showing on a big television set in the corner and although all the contestants reported that they felt very emotional, I was confident that their heightened feelings would not blunt the keen edge of my analysis.

I was eating by myself in the local fish and chips restaurant because the better half was being entertained by friends for dinner and there was nothing in the fridge that I was capable of cooking. These friends are in London for a week or so and have entertained her for dinner most nights. On one occasion I was included. They come over every month or so and entertain the better half on successive nights and sometimes, as this time, kindly ask me along too.

And here’s (as they no doubt say in the University of East Anglia) the thing. They never eat at a restaurant that does not have at least one Michelin star. It is a dogged attempt on the category of London Michelin-starred restaurants. And as with the Munros – more frequently in fact, geological time being what it is – restaurants gain stars or lose them. A rat is found in a previously favoured kitchen: an evening has, in retrospect, been wasted. Some previously spurned fusion eatery gets the nod. Some super-trendy place opens: better wait, just in case. You can never relax for a moment.

As I thrust my tongue into my portion of moist haddock, evanescent hints of the sea playing against the more trenchant notes of the beer batter, it seemed to me that maybe there is more pleasure to be had in the culinary foothills; that a saunter through the strath curling down the mountain, with the water in the burn bubbling over the rocks, the trout dark shadows barely discernible in the pools and the midgies lurking out of the sunlight and awaiting their turn, gives more pleasure than the stern, bare, unforgiving slopes above.

An obsessive Munro hunter, like an obsessive diner out, or a vinyl nut, would tell us curtly that that was not the point.

And fair enough.

But, just a thought, in these restaurants, do they have to tell you what you’re eating?

The last time I was included in the invitation we went to one of those Indian-lite places so much smiled on these days by the Michelin judges. The food was delicious – not as good as my haddock but very nice.

The difference is this. The woman brings you your haddock with the remark, There you go, dear. In the Michelin place they set your plate down and then tell you in detail what it contains.

Good manners prevent your replying, Yes I know; I ordered it.

On this occasion the waiter indicated with a flourish a small copper bowl.

And that, he said, is fish curry.

No it isn’t, we said; it’s chicken.

To which he replied, with the gastronomic acuity that makes reputations or breaks them, but with a charming giggle:

Fish, chicken, whatever.

Frothing in the Blog Space

The very real hurt of the transgender community will not go away. His Holiness can be trusted, I am sure, to take a long and measured view on the matter but not the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who rang me spluttering with laughter. Some oligarch – they did say but I have forgotten his name – was in Cannes to attend the launch of a film that he had paid for, and fell in love with a beautiful woman. It was immediately apparent to his entourage, though not to the oligarch, that she was a hooker but what did not appear until a critical moment involving the oligarch himself alone was that she was also a member of the transgender community. The oligarch had taken the position that love was love, but she had explained that he didn’t understand, she had photographs; he had paid her some money (a lot in the context of her published rates but not in terms of his budget for the trip) and the relationship had come to an abrupt end.

I was thinking, having got the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached off the phone, about how questions of gender, especially when seen from the perspective of the straight community, turn irresistibly into questions of sex. I recalled reading a piece somewhere by a member of the male gay community. He said that he welcomed the trend by which gay men were now almost universally respected as such and treated as regular members of the human community. This had gathered pace over the last fifteen years or so in a way that would never have been predicted during, say, the Thatcher years. But he missed being able to be a screaming queen, to be an outsider, and he missed being encouraged to at best seduce and at least outrage straight men.

When I told Popes Я Us about fooling around with Brazilian transsexuals I was of course lying; I was teasing them and attempting to provoke some outrage in return. I succeeded better that I hoped. I have not met many members of the transgender community. Those that I have met have all been quiet and courteous, except one who was terrifying. They were not screaming mimis, or whatever Julie Birchill’s phrase was. But the question of negotiating some sexual accommodation between straight man and transsexual, however remote the possibility, was unmistakeably there. Furthermore, I never got the impression that their greatest ambition was to be accepted as, say, a chartered accountant and an open member of the transgender community; they were happy to compartmentalise their lives.

Unlike the great Buffy Ste-Marie:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

She wrote that in the unregenerate 1980s. Now of course we would say:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be a member of the Native American Community
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

I suspect that there is much in the wonderfully on-the-one-hand–but-then-again-on-the-other hand apologia published yesterday by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor (what exactly does a readers’ editor do?). He wrote:

Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.

There, I suspect, we have it. Many members of the transgender community are getting on with their lives, quietly proud to have provoked Julie Birchill into wit and hysteria, and nearly all the noise is being made by ‘concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby’, or as we might say ‘busybodies’. Certainly that is what is suggested by most of the frothing in the blog space.

Taking of the frothing in the blog space, what a wonderful word ‘transphobia’ is. Spell Check, it becomes apparent as I type, hasn’t met it before. Literally it must mean ‘fear of across’. Presumably it acknowledges that useful neologism ‘homophobia’. This does not mean, as those of us with a dusting of the Classics might have assumed, ‘fear of the same’, but ‘hatred (it’s more than ’fear’) of members of the gay community’. So ‘transphobia’ indicates ‘hatred of members of the transgender community’. Of course we need such a word, if we are to really stick it to Julie Birchill, and I am sure that when dawn breaks in Seattle on Monday some junior employee of the Microsoft company will be beetling across the yard to the computer room to update Spell Check; but I can’t help feeling that it is a shame. For years I have used the word to indicate a pathology common in the crossword community: ‘fear of across’, and now I shall have to find an alternative if I am to avoid yet again giving offence. I should have trade-marked it. Popes Я Us would have done. But hindsight is a wonderful gift…

I was musing along these lines (as the even greater Anthony Powell occasionally writes, when attempting to crowbar a bit of straight-to-camera into his story) when the phone rang again. It was an overseas call, so it must I thought be either my investment manager in Geneva or someone trying to sell me insurance for my non-existent Bosch washing machine. It was of course neither.

Dominus vobiscum, said a now familiar voice.

Talk of the Devil.


Know you’re busy. Just a quick one.


His Holiness has a question.


What’s so good about jokes? You say that the desirability of Julie Birchill’s jokes trumps any right not to be offended. He asks in all humility, he says, being not only a good Christian but a German.

Has His H read the science fiction novels of E. Doc Smith? I said. I thought not. Let him do so. With E. Doc Smith, travel through hyperspace, which is impossible in terms of conventional physics, enables plot developments that could not otherwise happen. You can cross impossible distances in an instant. You can cut to the crucifixion. It’s the same with thinking and discussing, in addition of course to making us laugh. Jokes take us through hyperspace. Of course it brings risks. You may travel through hyperspace and come out in the middle of a supernova, in which case you’re dead. Or, in our case, you’re the subject of a wigging from the Observer newspaper’s Readers’ Editor.

I see. I will provide that to His Holiness translated into Italian.

Yes, or into German. The German Community is often unjustly vilified for not having a sense of humour. German will do too. And give him a copy of Triplanetary. You’ll have it in the Vatican Library. He’ll like it anyway, and he may even find material for a homily.

Thank you. And he has a comment.

Go ahead.

Tennyson. Only three memorable quotes, you say. What, he asks, and again he says that he does so in great humility, given your infinitely greater knowledge of English literature, especially in the secular space, but what, he says, about: Come into the Garden, Maud.

Memorable or what, he says.


Four, then.

Masseuses on the Beach

Instead of the younger Belgians we now have, in the room next door, Ouen and Ouennetta and their babies.  Ouen and Ouennnetta are doggedly determined parents.  Today they set out with a carful of plastic impedimenta designed to ensure that the babies have everything that they need and at the optimum temperature.  There was no room in the car for – and they left behind – what looks like an artificial lung but the better half says is probably a swimming pool.  I can’t believe that it was the same for my parents and me, except bakelite instead of plastic.  If my National Health orange was a little too warm or a little too cold, then bouf!  That was their idea.

They have just gone out laden down by extruded plastic and returned half an hour later with a Big Mac and a large Cola each.  It was a Big Mac and a large Cola each last night too.  To judge by the sounds through the wall, Frogmilla was hoping for something different.

Today was even hotter so it was the beach again.  The café that closed on account of the arrival of winter had sublet a room on the beach to a masseuse or possibly two masseuses.  A schedule of prices is tacked to the gate.  It includes ‘gommage’.  I don’t know what ‘gommage’ is but I don’t think that a gentleman would ask for it.

Today the masseuses (or if only one the masseuse and the masseuse’s friend) returned.  They sat for an hour or two on the beach chatting.  Then with a sigh they went to the room and cleared out all the stuff that shouldn’t be left there all winter.  Having done that, and overcome perhaps by a decent nostalgia, they pulled out the old table one last time and gave each other one.  Whether it included gommage I couldn’t see.

We had a picnic on the beach: oysters with a baguette and white wine.  I put sand in one of mine for an experiment, but no pearls materialised.

Driving through the maquis on the way to the beach I remembered The Song of the Partisan, the French song, I don’t know who by, recorded by both Leonard Cohen and Buffy Ste. Marie: probably others too but those are the versions that I know (Songs from a Room and She Used to Want to be a Ballerina respectively).  Back at the chambres de hote I listened to them both on the iPod.  What a great song and what performances, though I believe in Buffy taking her gun and vanishing more than Leonard Cohen, who seems fonder of his creature comforts.

The better half has spent much of the last month or two dealing with Foxtons, the estate agents.  Among numerous other failings Foxtons owe her client some money and won’t pay it.  To be fair they have paid it, but into a total stranger’s bank account.  Now they are refusing to return phone calls or emails – or the money.  In fact they are behaving like a venal and badly-brought-up six year old, who believes that if he shuts his eyes everything nasty will go away.  Shouldn’t recessions sort out useless organisations like Foxtons?  Isn’t that what they’re for?

As I type this on the better half’s laptop my thoughts go to Microsoft.  How long have they had to get Word right?  Shouldn’t the recessions sharpen up Microsoft too?


Wilder’s Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu.  Still.  What a clumsy book.

Listened to

Leonard Cohen

Buffy Ste. Marie

Morton Feldman: Why Patterns?

Liszt: Gran Mass


Oysters on the beach

Mozzarella cheese and tomato.

Les Vignerons de St Hippolyte: white