Thursday, 23 October 2014


I never go to zoos; who does? But long ago, before the Soviet invasion and long before 9/11, I went to Kabul zoo and saw the one and only tiger they had; full grown, in a bare cage not much bigger than itself with an [empty] water bowl in a corner. What a persecuted species the tiger has been; only around 3000 left in the wild. So glad to read this piece about an increase in the tiger population.

tiger in Kabul Zoo:

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


I mentioned in an earlier posting that I would say something about Roman Zsawisa, who I knew quite well during my early days working in London.

He was Polish . . . and a different generation to me . . . he told me that he was fifteen when he lived in the sewers of Warsaw during the 1944 uprising when advancing Russian troops stayed on the other side of the river and allowed Nazi German forces to massacre over 150,000 trapped and desperate civilians. So, that would mean he was probably born around 1927 or 1928. I had never met anyone like him, before or since. The situation he described in Warsaw at that time was horrific; whole families burned alive by German flame-throwers. Starved of food and water, driven into the city’s sewers while the buildings above them were systematically destroyed.

He loved talking about it. Just give him a cue . . . ‘Did you ever eat dog, Roman?’ . . . and he would talk for hours about the war. His job in the resistance was hiding places, he told me. Concealment; of weapons, ammunition, radios, petrol, anything and everything to keep the resistance supplied.

I don’t know why he didn’t perish with his colleagues and if he told me how he got to England after the war, I can no longer remember. I don’t know how he ended up working for the GLC Architects Dept but that was where I met him.

I think he was regarded as a right-wing nut there, where all the young architects out of college were working at the GLC out of love and a belief in utopia. God, he hated the Russians with a passion. Could quote Trotsky at you and tell you where he had got it wrong; thought Marx was the devil incarnate. And he was so intense; every little detail picked over. He lived in a detached house in Wimbledon that was so full of books that they were even carpeting the floors. Ask him something, anything, and he would find a book in a cupboard, often in Russian or Polish, with the answer. Never even glanced at fiction; his life was too real.

How do you control an IQ of 164? Well, they got him to research vandalism on the Estates and guess what he found: the door hardware wasn’t doing its job, which is how I got involved. The theory, then and now is one of defensible space. If you allow litter to accumulate, the garden/landing looks neglected and vandals assume no-one cares. If the lift doors don’t work and you have to push a pram up twenty-seven flights of concrete steps, you are fairly certain that no-one cares. Door hardware was always the weakest component and the beginning of decay and neglect. So he invented things: strong hinges, with instructions on how to fix them, how deep to drill the pilot holes, how long the screws should be. Door bolts that were actually stronger than the doors they were being fitted to, locks and keeps that could withstand an attack by a sledgehammer. You may think that being a genius is an undervalued currency these days but Royde & Tucker still turn over a million a year from manufacturing his inventions. They are uniformly brilliant and what’s more, the GLC took his ideas on board and insisted that all Newbuild housing incorporated them. He profoundly affected how even low-cost local authority housing was designed and constructed.

Then along came Alice Coleman. Then, a lecturer in Geography at Kings College, London; now, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Kings College, London. And she waltzed off with his ideas and published them under her own name in a book called Utopia on Trial. But the findings are controversial, still; that’s the trouble with nicking research done by someone else . . . particularly a right-wing nut-job. Actually, that could be regarded as slanderous. I suspect that what actually happened was that she applied academic rigour to his ideas.

I lost touch with him soon after; he came up to Newcastle and stayed with us over a weekend. Brought no change of clothes or pyjamas.



Our friend Marguerite Elliott died on Saturday; she was seventy-five.
Just before we went to Seville, she tripped over a loose paving stone, fell in the street and broke her hip. When we went to see her in Sunderland General Hospital, she seemed fine, sitting up in bed and already looking forward to getting back home. Five weeks later, she was dead.
Marguerite was an artist and later, a poet but she was an artist whose public profile in no way matched the enormous depth of her talent. Born and brought up in the Durham mining village of Easington where husband, baby and a short, hard life were the best a skinny young woman like Marguerite could hope for, she showed unusual artistic promise as a little girl. Her fashion-conscious mother cherished her daughter’s gift and taught her drawing and textiles. Remarkably, she won a place at the RCA and moved to London at the age of eighteen and later, to Galashiels, to study textiles, tapestry weaving and tweed making.
Obviously, we didn’t know Marguerite; we weren’t born then but it must have been quite astonishing for this tiny child from the North-east coalfields to be taking classes at RCA. I have known one or two people in my life who have trained at the RCA and almost all of them went on to become senior partners in major architectural practices, living in Twickenham and driving one-year old BMW’s. It is just incredible that she not only got a place there but found the cojones to even apply. You have to be able to draw with the precision of Piranesi just to have your CV considered.  
Later still, she studied in Switzerland but if there had ever been a market for quality tapestry, it had dried up by the time she returned home, and she went in to teaching. Decades of young students fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent.
Every Christmas, we would receive a hand-drawn and illustrated Christmas card. Birthdays were similarly rewarded with a crayon sketch of the fields and coastline around Hawthorn Dene, where she was perhaps happiest, walking in the woods.
We have kept these cards, all in her beautiful handwriting and the watercolours and the priceless tapestries and rugs she gave us. We will cherish her legacy and remember her with great affection.

Marguerite Elliott 1937-2014

Monday, 20 October 2014


I found this on a site called Something I'm Working On. 
Classy stuff.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


Isn't this excellent?
I nicked it out of this months Oxford American.

Saturday, 18 October 2014


I have read a lot of books this year and posted the reviews on Amazon. The only one I picked out for special mention here on the blog was Burial Rites, which I reviewed back in July. Still the best new novel I have read this year.

I just finished The Martian which I enjoyed for most of the time, although I felt it slumped badly in the final third. It’s very popular, nr 330 in the Amazon top sellers list, so it must be selling in barrowloads. Good luck to Andy Weir, the author who like me, began life as a self-published writer. Sent it to forty Literary Agents and Publishers and turned down by all of them. Now he is high in the Amazon top seller lists.

Before that, I read The Loneliness of Survival by a friend of mine, Diana Finley, who lives here in Newcastle. We both had the same Creative Writing teacher, John Seymour. It’s not bad. I gave it three stars and a rather too glowing review on Amazon. It’s not really my thing, unfortunately. It’s about a woman who lives a privileged, Jewish life in pre-war Vienna; cars, carriages, servants, private schools, who escapes to Palestine just before the Nazi’s invade. Her husband, mother and grandmother are all sent to Auschwitz, but she survives. She meets and then marries a handsome British officer in Haifa who by a twist of fate, is posted to post-war Berlin in 1946. So, she finds herself living a privileged, Jewish life in Germany; cars, carriages, servants, private schools for the children . . . amongst the starving skeletons of Berlin who just a few years earlier had been her deadly enemies.
An interesting story and based in fact on her mother’s life. She was 102 when he died in a Care Home in 2012.

Prior to that, I read The Swan by Gudbergur Bergsson, translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. It has good reviews but I found it hard work. It is a kind of contemporary fable about a little girl who turns into a swan, full of existential meaning.

Before that I read a wonderful book, An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1995 but I just got around to reading it now. Astonishingly, it gets only 3* on Goodreads. I thought it was a toure de force; everything most readers today find anathema; middle-class angst; dated; self absorbed . . . you name it. I absolutely loved it. One of the newspaper reviewers is quoted on the back cover as saying, ‘A near faultless masterpiece of pathos, observation, feeling . . . written in angelic prose’. Couldn’t have put it better myself. What’s it about? It almost doesn’t matter; the pleasure is entirely in reading the angelic prose . . . it just takes your breath away. However, if you need to know, it is entirely concerned with the early life, from toddler to teenager, of a young working-class Catholic girl who is the first in her family, in her school in fact to go to university. Spellbinding, huh? But it is.

Evie Wylde was next. All The Birds Singing, with its clever, unusual structure that keeps you guessing to almost the very end. It is very ambitious and kind of loses its way during the scenes on the farm but I don’t need perfection every time and it is more than good enough. What is it about? Well the blurb doesn’t give much away but it is more or less the story of a young Australian girl who runs away from a sheep ranch and finds herself in Wales, on the other side of the world and buys a smallholding which she runs by herself. Then we hear her horrific backstory.

Then Alice Munro and The Beggar Maid, winner of the Man Booker Prize, it says on the cover. Just fabulous writing; line after line, paragraph after paragraph of the most tremendous prose. She deeply influenced a generation of women writers; Anne Enright; A S Byatt [Susan Duffy] and probably millions of other creative writing students on college courses right now. I have to say that if I had read it on my creative writing course or indeed at any point in my life prior to writing Riccarton Junction, I would probably have written a different book. Mesmerising.

Before that, I think it was In the Country of Men. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award; ‘glowing with emotional truth . . .’ says the blurb. But not for me. It was a struggle to finish it. The author, Hisham Matar has used the facts of his own background as a child in Libya during Gaddafi’s barbaric rule, to try to give a sense of the terror of those times. But he adopts the narrative voice of a child . . . who keeps misunderstanding what he sees and hears and it gets in the way.
Then way back at the beginning of the year I read, All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe, a clever crime fiction story set in metropolitan Tokyo. I liked actually. It is better if you have been to Japan, I suspect and have at least a working knowledge of where all the major cities are. Also, it needs all your attention because of the unfamiliarity of the Japanese names. There are a lot of characters; more than once I forgot who Mizoguchi was and later, who Machiko was in a way that with British or American crime fiction, you wont get confused between Jane or John. It is good though and worth the effort.


Yesterday, on a bright, warm sunny morning, we walked along the banks of the river Tees, from Low Force to High Force waterfall. We have been coming here for many years. Like so much of the British countryside, it is beautiful in Autumn. The rivers are full and the leaves are just beginning to turn; couldn’t be more opposite to the dry, hot, dusty, flat plains of Spain.
The sward is still dense by the path and the fields are spangled with knapweed and field scabious. We saw a group of half-a- dozen tups by themselves in an enclosure, with their enormous willies, getting ready for mating.