July 17, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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Their Thing: thoughts on the Italian TV crime series Gomorrah

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS

Troglodytes

Somewhere in Italy, I imagine the author Roberto Saviano is tapping away at his laptop while outside his heavily armed police bodyguards sip coffee and play scopa to pass the time.

Such is the price you pay when you write a blistering exposé of the Camorra – although if Matteo Salvini, the country’s far-right interior minister, has his way, Saviano may soon be on his own.

Going underground: Gennaro Savastano (Salvatore Esposito)

It’s now 13 years since Saviano’s book Gomorrah exposed the murky, ultra-violent world of the Neapolitan mafia and earned him death threats from the organisation’s godfathers. Last week, after a month-long binge, I watched the last episode of the fourth series of the TV show based on the book (and the play and the film). It ended with the anti-hero mobster Gennaro Savastano voluntarily holed up in a hidden bunker, his meaningful stare into the camera lens suggesting series five is on its way.

By my calculations Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito) is the only character to have survived this long, although the inference from this final scene – and the series as a whole – is that survival in this world is not necessarily desirable.

We are always told that crime is not glamorous, yet Gomorrah portrays a particularly dismal, bovine existence in which criminals rake millions from the drug trade yet choose to live amid the dripping, garbage-infested squalor of the Secondigliano housing projects of northern Naples. They have bad haircuts, horrible clothes and fill their rooms with kitsch furniture.

In S1 Ep1 we are introduced to Gennaro’s dad, Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino), the capo di tutti capi, whose house is bigger than everyone else’s but surrounded by 15ft concrete walls and patrolled by tattooed men carrying machine guns. The stress levels are through the gilded ceiling at all times.

In short, according to Gomorrah, la Cosa Loro is shit. The clue is in the title. And maybe that’s what so upset the godfathers about Roberto Saviano’s book. After all, it’s Their Thing. Who are we to judge? In S4 Gennaro tries to go straight in Rome, but barely puts up a fight when circumstances offer him the opportunity to abandon his wife and child and return to Naples. Down in his subterranean cell he is at close enough to Secondigliano for its stench to seep through the air vent. His look to camera also suggests he is happy to be home.

And in dramatic terms we are happy, too. The S4 episodes in which the newly-respectable family man cuts deals with financiers in his bid to build “Italy’s second-largest airport” are perhaps the weakest of the entire show. The section set in London, in which Gennaro is scammed of £30m in gold bullion by a couple of Mayfair toffs, is frankly ludicrous.

By S4 we are trained to expect violence. When Gennaro solves a dispute with his lawyer rather than with his gun or his fists, we feel betrayed.  This is where Gomorrah has brought us. We are all Secondigliano troglodytes now.

 

Ciro and Iago

But all this is a long way off when we first meet Gennaro. Indeed in S1, he is a peripheral figure, a cowed and bleating mummy’s boy living in the shadow of his domineering father. He is a whack just waiting to happen.

Troubled killer: Ciro di Marzio (Marco d’Amore)

The real star is the enigmatic Ciro (Marco d’Amore), a shaven-headed foot soldier whose murderous ambition gradually morphs into a crisis of conscience, of sorts. Through his eyes (or rather through the lenses of his expensive sunglasses) we see Their Thing for what it really is: a hardscrabble existence, punctuated by sudden death, in which anyone with two brain cells to rub together can reach the top.

Ciro has plenty of brains, which is why we see him become increasingly frustrated at his inability to get on. But independent thought is a cause for suspicion among organised crime bosses, who prefer their rottweilers to be mute and on a tight leash. Relegated down the ranks by Don Pietro, Ciro simmers and plots while Gennaro, his initially dim-witted protégé, climbs the ladder because of who he is.

As viewers of TV drama we are conditioned to having at least one character we can root for, and in Gomorra it is Ciro. But at the same time it’s like watching Othello and feeling sorry for Iago. Ciro may be left a broken man when his daughter is shot dead by one of Don Pietro’s henchmen, yet in the previous episode he is seen strangling his own wife, and one loses count of the number of children he has summarily orphaned with his 9mm.

Ciro has no redeeming features. Nobody does in Secondigliano. They exist, they hustle, they get whacked. We just shrug and move on.

This is where Gomorrah has brought us. Their Thing has become Our Thing.

 

A death foretold

An awful lot of people get whacked in Gomorra. The preferred method of execution is two to the chest and a coup de grace in the skull. In one episode, a body is thrown into a freshly dug hole in a quarry and blown up with a stick of dynamite – but this seems excessively cautious. No matter how high the bodies pile up, there isn’t a policeman to be seen in Naples.

Season 2 is particularly deadly. By the end, and with the exception of Ciro and Gennaro, everyone we have come to know is dead. Even Don Pietro gets it, outside the mausoleum where his murdered wife has recently been interred.

This is the end: Don Pietro, left, gets his in the cemetery, courtesy of a vengeful Ciro

The effect of this relentless culling on the viewer is twofold: first, we understand that life is cheap in Secondigliano; second, we understand that there is no point in getting invested in any of the characters because they will soon be dead.

Maybe the writers were exhausted with all the killing, or maybe they were just more confident in what they are writing, but S3 shows a marked and welcome change of pace. Broken Ciro is in self-imposed exile in Bulgaria, while Gennaro has returned from a traumatic trip to the jungles of South America a changed man – and not for the better. We know their paths will eventually collide, but in the meantime their separate storylines provide us with a chance to get to know them better.

With everyone dead, a fresh roster of characters is introduced – and when some are still alive after two episodes, our hopes are raised that they may last the course, if not the series itself. Most don’t, but there are enough left on which to hang a decent storyline. The action moves out of claustrophobic Secondigliano and we learn more about the structure of the Camorra operation. For the first time, Gomorrah starts to take on epic qualities.

Even when Ciro gets whacked, it’s a case of taking one for the team.

 

Hiding from reality

The danger of binge-watching is that when you consume 48 episodes in a row, sometimes three in a night, you start to obsess over the things that might otherwise pass you by if you were watching one episode a week.

Earlier I mentioned the apparent absence of police in Naples, but I now realise I was wrong. In fact the entire storyline of S1 turns on Don Pietro’s arrest by a couple of traffic cops, and the effect of his subsequent incarceration on his organisation.

But other than a drugs bust by a squad of bent detectives at the start of S4, that’s the last we see of the carabinieri in any meaningful capacity. Even when Don Pietro is sprung from prison, resulting in the deaths of several officers, the apparent lack of interest in recapturing him is staggering. Where is the manhunt? Where are the raids on the towers? Admittedly the Don is forced into hiding, but the impression is he is more concerned about being found by his enemies than by the police.

Niceguys: despite it all, we root for Tony Soprano and his gang

A crucial plot-driver in The Sopranos – the show with which Gomorrah is inevitably compared – is the New Jersey Mob’s ongoing attempts to evade arrest by the FBI; and I found myself longing for a Neapolitan equivalent of that show’s world-weary Agent Harris to prove that even if they are ineffective, at least somebody with a badge cares about the havoc being wrought by organised crime on his patch.

Instead the lack of any discernible law enforcement starts to become irritating, because unlike Tony Soprano and his likeable wiseguys we want these Camorra bastards to feel the heat. If nothing else, it would add a new dimension to the show’s narrative, which by S4 is driven largely by gangsters having meetings in warehouses and under motorway flyovers.

 

There will be blood

Maybe the writers have something up their sleeve for S5. But, like his father, I get the feeling that whatever Gennaro is hiding from in his cellar, it is not the long arm of the law. In which case the prospect of yet another bloody gang war is dispiriting.

Don’t get me wrong: Gomorrah is great. The question is, where else can it go? It was a problem David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, solved by simply ending it – but when your show is being sold in over 170 countries, and is more popular than Game of Thrones in Italy, there is no way you are going to kill it off in a hurry.

Indeed there is not only a new series in the pipeline, a film revisiting the early days of Ciro is due to be released at Christmas.

I’m sure I’ll watch both. But at the same time part of me wishes I’d got it wrong about Gennaro’s look to the camera. That just maybe those cold, dead eyes were sending out a message that this was it, that there was no more; that the story was always going to end up here in this bleak cellar beneath the Secondigliano slums because, when all is said and done, this is what Gomorrah was always about.

 

 

July 12, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 9-11: Summer holiday, Cavatina, brain mapping

Following a short break, the diary resumes.

Tuesday, July 9

The cream of Britain’s youth arrive

The summer holidays have already begun for the entitled, public school offspring of the privileged middle-class elite.

Nephew B and his friend, both 14, have come to stay the night. Watching them in action makes me think that Beavis and Butthead, which I previously thought was a cartoon series, was actually a documentary. It’s now 37 years, and the memory plays tricks – but were my friends and I really such blundering assholes at that age?

They arrive with immediate demands to be taken to the trampoline park in town. I oblige, if only to get rid of them for an hour. On the way back, a brief stop-off at Sainsburys for supplies. Beavis and Butthead remain in the car, but demand that I buy them four cans of something called Strongbow Dark Fruit, which apparently is a low-alcohol cider much favoured by teenagers. Sensing an opportunity for payback, I return with four cans of dog food and plead deafness.

G and her friend, both 14, arrive. Teenage girls are intrinsically much nicer than boys, but together they are like a pack of dogs. Full marks for cunning, however: J catches them decanting gin and tonic into a water bottle, at which point I move all the beer and spirits to the attic and padlock the hatch.

By 8pm J and I are prisoners in our own living room while the rest of the house reverberates with thuds and whoops. At 9.30pm a pizza delivery van arrives and I note that The Exorcist has been downloaded for late-night viewing.

 

Wednesday, July 10

7.30am and a scene of utter squalor in the downstairs TV room where Beavis and Butthead are comatose on the sofa and Parker is greedily consuming left-over pizza and chocolate cake from spilled containers on the floor. The girls are asleep in G’s room, a bombsite of clothes and filth which even a resident of the Kibera slum in Nairobi would complain to his landlord about.

Left to their own devices, I have no doubt they would do it all again – but I decide that divide and conquer is the best policy. Beavis and Butthead are duly rousted and driven into Carlisle, where I hand them £10 each for a McDonald’s breakfast and a ticket for the 9am train back to Newcastle.

Lots of Day Job stuff to do in town, but I kill half an hour listening to a busker in the Market Square. Never has an out-of-tune version Cavatina played on an electric guitar sounded so soothing.

My lack of progress on rewrites is beginning to annoy me, however.

 

Thursday, July 11

To a hotel in Penrith, for an 8.30am breakfast networking meeting organised by the Chamber of Commerce. I hate breakfast networking meetings, but unfortunately the Day Job demands it.

Pleasantries and cards are exchanged over a limp bacon sandwich and an insipid cup of coffee from a vending machine. I find myself stuck between an expert in intellectual property and a man who describes himself as a “career management, change and life coach” and also a “brain mapping practitioner”. He seems rather down-at-heel in appearance, suggesting the brain mapping business isn’t going too well and perhaps he should manage his career by changing it.

A woman stands up and announces that “without further adieu” we should listen to three 10-minute pitches by Chamber members about their respective businesses. A sense of “there but for the grace of God” sweeps over me.

Thirty long minutes pass and then the woman announces that we should “get networking” – at which point, and without further adieu, I leave without making my excuses.

In 30 minutes, England will play Australia for a place in the Cricket World Cup Final. Oh, to be in Edgbaston!

 

 

 

July 4, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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July 1-3: Radio, stowaway, hangperson

Monday, July 1

Radio Ga-Ga: a full house in the Radio Cumbria studio

To BBC Radio Cumbria, where I am doing my monthly arts preview on Helen Millican’s evening show.

The other guests have already been on air for an hour by the time I get to the studio at 8pm. A typically eclectic gathering, plucked from the Cumbrian creative community: two middle-aged women who are involved in the arts and crafts scene in Cockermouth; and a guy in his thirties who is in a folk band with his father-in-law, who must be in his late 60s, wears a stunted stovepipe hat, and plays the electric guitar one-handed.

I’ve been doing this gig since February, so I have no compunction about stealing the mic from the old geezer, one hand or not. It’s important to sound good – after all, you never know who might be listening, if indeed anybody is listening at all.

Helen is a consummate professional who used to work on the South Bank Show, and she’s got a hell of a job broadcasting on local radio for three hours a night, five days a week. I don’t know how much she gets paid, but it will be a drop in the ocean compared to Gary Lineker who now gets £1.75m for hosting Match of the Day for an hour a week, and Alan Shearer who trousers a staggering £450,000 for his 10 mins of monotone punditry on the same show.

I don’t get paid, but I regard each monthly broadcast as a penny in the experience bank. Helen has already said she will show me how to “drive the desk” – and, by the look of some of the Radio Cumbria DJs, a few are ripe for retirement.

 

Tuesday, July 2

A quiet day in Cumbria, but in London a man sunbathing in his garden was nearly struck by a dead stowaway who fell from the undercarriage of a Boeing 787 en route to Heathrow from Kenya.

When J and I lived in Thaxted, our house was directly under the flightpath of aircraft coming in to land at nearby Stansted. Thankfully we never experienced the falling stowaway problem, but then the flights were mainly EasyJet 737s coming in from Malaga and Mallorca.

It’s doubtful things could ever be so bad in Spain that people would want to risk their lives coming to Essex.

 

Wednesday, July 3

Being 51, I qualify for a free NHS Health Check. At Brampton surgery a nurse called Gail takes my blood pressure (excellent) and then takes my blood to test for cholesterol levels, potential diabetes and renal function (TBC in a fortnight).

I weigh in at 86kg, a kilo heavier than I was when I had the same MOT five years ago. However I appear to have grown – I am now 5ft 9 ½ins, whereas before I was half an inch shorter. Suspect the tests are not being done under rigorous scientific conditions, which makes me wonder about their validity.

A brief lifestyle Q&A concludes with the usual bullshit about how much I drink. I answer as honestly as I can – about five or six units a week on average – but neglect to point out that the average includes abstinent weekdays and weekend blow-outs which can last three days.

Still, as long as I get a certificate for the next five years I’ll be happy.

G reports that, in the spirit of end-of-term jollity, her ultra-feminist art teacher has suggested a game of “hangperson” on Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 1, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 28-30: Doctor Fischer, Strunz, Boris Effect

Friday, June 28

A frustrating day.

Having walked the dog, I return to yesterday’s gentle rewrites in order to quickly finesse the changes prior to attacking the main body of work with gusto. Fatal mistake. I find myself embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with an explanatory paragraph, and the next thing I know it is time to walk the dog again.

Finish Doctor Fischer of Geneva, which I picked up for washers at a charity book stall at Carlisle railway station to make me look intellectual on the train journey to London last month. I read somewhere that Graham Greene wrote no more than 500 words a day, which means it must have taken him about three weeks to finish this particular novella. I have to admit, I’m surprised it took him so long. Check online to see if anyone else thinks it’s a load of old tosh, but find it is universally praised as a work of allegorical genius and they also made a film out of it.

Take a deep breath and finally start Grossman’s Life and Fate – which by my calculations would have taken Graham Greene over two and a half years to write. The lengthy introduction alone would have taken him at least a month.  The last book I really enjoyed was Don Winslow’s The Border.

 

Saturday, June 29

Three seasons into the Gomorrah binge and the effects are beginning to show. This morning I purchase an Italian-style stove-top espresso maker on Amazon, then later a driver pulls out in front of me without looking and I call him “Strunz”. Had it been season four, I may well have emptied a clip through his windscreen and spat on his twitching corpse.

Attempt to absolve my sinfulness with 30 miles on the bike in punishing heat and up some vertiginous hills, while listening to 13 Minutes To The Moon, Kevin Fong’s gripping audio series about the Apollo 11 landing 50 years ago. The average age of the mission control team was 25, which is only a year older than the average age of this year’s Love Island contestants.

Back on Earth the photos from Thursday’s shoot have dropped, and it’s worse than I thought.

 

Sunday, June 30

Rebecca Long-Bailey: Bojo antidote?

Rip through the increasingly dire Sunday Times in record time.  Do it again, but there is nothing that catches my attention. Indeed many of the stories in the main body of the paper are simply digested rewrites of interviews in the magazine, and the star columnists – Rod Liddle, Camilla Long, Jeremy Clarkson – all sound the same. Maybe I’m getting old, but if it wasn’t for the sport and the Culture section, and the fact I’ve got a subscription, I might not bother.

That said, yesterday’s Times had  an entertainingly scurrilous spread about Corbyn – he’s losing his marbles, he is a puppet of his Stalinesque apparatchiks etc – and  surprisingly today’s Observer has it in for Magic Grandpa as well. A front page report claims even some of his most loyal front benchers have had it with his alleged antisemitism and his dithering.

This is clearly the Boris Effect. Labour fears that if Johnson becomes PM, he will sweep to victory in a General Election. But who will replace Corbyn? The smart money appears to be on Rebecca Long-Bailey, who is currently Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. On the few occasions I have seen her, she strikes me as a rather earnest and humourless individual – the polar opposite of Bojo, which is perhaps the point.

To bed with Grossman, and realise that Glastonbury has passed me by again this year.

 

 

June 28, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 25-27: Faulkner, transplant surgery, Matt Goss’s dad

Tuesday, June 25

A long phone conversation with Joanna about the book.

The good news is she likes the general idea, the writing, and the main protagonist; but she is struggling to work out how she would pitch it to an editor. In other words, it’s classic Brownlee – everything bar the kitchen sink has been chucked in, resulting in about four different plotlines, some great set-pieces, but no defining focus or genre.

William Faulkner, in the process of killing his darlings

She is not the first agent/editor to make this observation about my writing. But I’ve always worked on the premise that if you come up with a killer idea, the characters and plot will look after themselves. What usually happens is they start take on a life of their own so that, by the end of the book, the original lean concept has mutated into something flabby and unrecognisable.

To be honest, Joanna says nothing I did not already know, deep down, about the book and its flaws. I just needed someone to make it official – which is why I think I have made a good choice with my new agent.

So, it’s once again time to take Faulkner’s advice and kill your darlings. (Or not, as the case may be: we have agreed that a character who was originally bumped off should not only make a Lazarus-like return, but play a central role in the rewrite.)

Despite the work that now lies ahead, I am both encouraged and relieved.

 

Wednesday, June 26

Having pondered the matter overnight, it is clear some major plot changes are required. Gird the loins and begin rewrites.

A solid four-hour stint sees me reach page 50, but it’s too easy. Changes are cosmetic rather than drastic; a nip here, a tuck there. For now the only pain is watching a hard-earned 76,000 word count sink below 74,000, and knowing it will only get worse before it gets better.

The author begins rewrites

Looming over my head is the certain knowledge that soon the operation will become akin to transplant surgery as I attempt to cut out diseased organs without nicking an artery and killing the patient, all the while hoping and praying that the replacements are not rejected.

A  bike ride to clear the head; but while labouring up a hill it suddenly strikes me that the character I planned to bring back from the dead must be erased from the book entirely. A pity, because I rather liked her – but in this brave new world she no longer has a place.

This is truly a merciless profession, filled with cold-blooded psychopaths.

I still have a long way to go to reach the gleefully murderous levels achieved by the writers of Gomorrah, however. The second season ends with most of the population of Naples dead, and even Don Pietro lying in a pool of his own blood and brains.

Molto brutale.

 

Thursday, June 27

To Carlisle for a press photoshoot with PR guy Glenn, with whom I’ve been working informally for the last few years. Business is booming, so we’ve decided to officially join forces and become the Saatchi & Saatchi of the Border City.

I’ve supervised plenty of photoshoots, but it’s a different matter when you’re on the other side of the lens. Maintaining a convincing smile is near-impossible, while the moody look just exacerbates the jowls. Pictures are taken outside the castle, and in the subway leading to Tullie House Museum. From what I can see of the rushes, Glenn – early 40s and wafer-thin thanks to his ultra-marathons – looks like a well-preserved Matt Goss and I look like his dad. I await the prints with trepidation.

European heatwave horror

In Germany the autobahns are melting due to the European heatwave. It’s hot here, too, by Cumbrian standards: 25 degrees according to the readout in my car. Is it kaftan weather? No – I shall keep the Grand Unveiling for another time.

Back home, I fiddle about with rewrites for a bit but then more Day Job stuff interferes – this is turning into one of those irritating days when there is a lot of fannying about without anything meaningful actually being achieved.

A stern letter arrives from G’s school. Having volunteered to serve drinks to parents and teachers at the Junior School Ball last week, she and her Year 9 friends took the opportunity to shark some of the left-over wine. Following a high-level disciplinary hearing, they have been sentenced to three hours in “Headmaster’s Detention” on Saturday morning.

I forward the letter to Grandpa Brownlee, who replies: “Waste not want not was my motto too.”

June 25, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 22-24: Knees-up, cyborgs, kaftan

Saturday, June 22

To the Wylam Brewery, which despite its name is now located in the old Science Museum in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park. I used to come here to on school trips to see Turbinia, the first steam turbine-powered steam ship, but today I am here to drink enough Galatia bitter to sink it.

Discussing tactics: the Tynedale U15 rugby coaches

The occasion is a knees-up for the Tynedale U15 rugby coaches, of which I am one, paid for by grateful parents. The coaching elite assembles – Mark S, Jonathan and Mike – and we are also joined by Matt, who as well as being one of the parents is also one of the owners of the brewery, and thus “keeper of the tab”. He has his dog with him and in keeping with the relaxed nature of the afternoon seems happy to let her roam among the drinkers.

On the nearby Town Moor the Hoppings funfair revs up. Mark S is keen to go, but is unanimously voted down. We are too old for fun.

At Central Station I am apprehended by a cordon of security guards who tell me I can’t board the Carlisle train with my bag of gin and tonics. For a moment I think about causing a scene, but decide I can’t be bothered and duly hand it over. Hopefully the guards enjoyed the contents and didn’t choke to death on them.

It seems that after we left, Matt realised his dog was missing. After a search lasting three hours, he eventually found her in a house belonging to an old couple more than a mile away in Jesmond.

 

Sunday, June 23

Lovelock: gloomy prediction

Recuperating with the Sunday papers.

James Lovelock, inventor of Gaia theory, has a new book out in which he predicts that cyborgs will eventually supersede humans as the dominant “species” on Earth. Hearteningly, he does not think they will destroy us, as in Terminator; rather, they will keep us in the manner of garden shrubbery – interesting to look at and useful for keeping the planet cool.

Eventually, however, he predicts that the Earth will become increasingly uninhabitable due to the dying Sun, at which point the cyborgs will decamp to Mars, leaving us to our fate. “But just as we do not mourn the passing of our ancestor species, neither, I imagine, will the cyborgs be grief-stricken by the passing of humans,” he writes.

Elsewhere there is an article about Americans with too much money who are obsessed by living forever. If James Lovelock is correct – and he usually is – there seems little point.

 

Monday, June 24

Heavy overnight rain abates, leaving a muggy, moist day. Miltonrigg Woods is like a tropical rainforest – dripping leaves and overgrown undergrowth. The shriek of a bonobo monkey would not be out of place; even Parker seems unusually unnerved by the transformation.

Clear some Day Job stuff, but my mood is like the weather. For the first time since I sent off my book, I am consumed by the edgy restlessness that is associated with the absence of a creative outlet. It’s not that I don’t have things to do – it’s just that I can’t be bothered to do them.

Divine comedy? For G’s sake, I hope not

Take Parker for another walk, this time by the Mad River. Things pick up upon my return: first an email from neighbour Simon L, who proposes a four-day excursion to Girona in September for members of the Hairy Glove Velo, our little cycling club. It will follow what promises to be an expensive August in France and Italy en famille, but after consulting with J I am the first to sign up.

Then G rings from school to announce that she has won the plum part of Penny in a forthcoming production of Hairspray. Is that the one in which Divine eats dog shit? I do hope not.

After that my holiday kaftan arrives from the US, cheering me up no end. I spend the rest of the afternoon wafting round the house, looking like a slightly debauched sheik.

And then, right at the death, an email from Joanne, my agent, who – true to her word – has read my novel inside a fortnight. She describes it as “a great piece of writing with real potential”, but with inevitable coda that it also requires quite a bit of work. No matter, this is highly encouraging news and we agree to discuss further tomorrow on the phone.

Celebrate with a hilly 14-miler on the bike and return an hour later spattered with flies.

 

June 22, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 19-21 : Fat hair, Catch-22, Rex Kramer

Wednesday, June 19

With the temperatures in the late 60s, downtown Carlisle has a distinctly European feel; coffee-drinkers sitting outside in the sun, pasty white flesh on display, and barely-contained optimism that summer is finally here.

However I spend the morning in the oily waiting room of Denton Tyres, waiting for four new tyres to be fitted to J’s car. It transpires that yesterday she drove to Teesside and back with a flat, and now it seems the other three are dangerously bald.

Baldness, namely mine, is also the subject of conversation at the hair salon where I celebrate the heatwave with a no-nonsense No.3. The hairdresser confirms what I have suspected for some time: that I am going thin on top. My lame rejoinder – “Who wants fat hair?” – falls on deaf ears.

The girl cheers me up by telling me about a customer who spent £7k on a hair transplant in order to disguise a bald patch, and now all that remains on his head is the transplanted tuft. Gamely, he still comes in once a month to get it trimmed.

Brave smile: but Rory Stewart’s bid for No 10 is over.

In Waterstones I purchase a paperback copy of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, on the back of rave reviews for the prequel Stalingrad, which is out in hardback. Both novels were suppressed by the Soviets and, since their rediscovery, have been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Spend 10 minutes discussing banned 20th century literature with the well-informed girl behind the counter, and leave with a spring in my step and an 875-page brick clutched to my breast.

Rory Stewart has been knocked out of the Tory leadership race. Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Graeme Logan remain. Attempt to dispel the ennui by blitzing three more episodes of Gomorrah. Don Pietro has now been transferred to a maximum security prison and his feckless son Gennaro increasingly resembles Christopher Biggins’ Nero in I, Claudius. 

 

Thursday, June 20

High drama in the village, where two cars have collided on a sharp bend at the bottom of the hill. No serious injuries, but coming so soon after the council applied top-dressing to the main road how much more excitement can we take?

Indeed what with this and the latest twists in the battle for the Tory leadership, there is a sense that the world is spinning off its axis.

Andrew Neill: more answers than questions

For insight on the latter I turn to Andrew Neil, whose interviewing technique on The Daily Politics consists of asking a question and then answering it himself, as if he is already bored of what the politician is about to say. Eventually he concentrates his efforts on taking the piss out of Chuka “three parties in three months” Umunna. Meanwhile Ann Widdecombe sits, gargoyle-like, and croaks opprobrium while we await the results from Westminster.

No surprise that Javid is the first to drop out, but there is an audible gasp as Logan is subsequently pipped by Hunt for the right to take on the seemingly unassailable Bojo. Only four weeks to go before we know the identity of our new PM.

A 16-miler on the bike to calm the nerves, but anxiety returns as we await George Clooney’s reimagining of Catch-22 on Channel 4. Will it be as good as the hype suggests? Can anything?

An off-puttingly hyperactive first act, largely due to Clooney himself, but after that it settles down. The overall tone remains rather arch, however – and in this respect it mirrors the original Joseph Heller novel, which I found generally insufferable. I shall stick with it, though, for the special effects if nothing else.

 

Friday, June 21

Walking up English Street to the Apple shop, I am reminded of the scene in Airplane in which Capt Rex Kramer dispatches a succession of pushy devotees from various religious sects (The Moonies, Jews for Jesus, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc) with punches and karate kicks as he makes his way across the departures concourse.

How I wish Rex Kramer was with me as I run the gauntlet of sleek street salesmen and beaming, professional “chuggers” who operate along this 200-yard stretch of Carlisle city centre, ready to pounce on unsuspecting shoppers and call them “Buddy”.

Except we are not unsuspecting. We know they are there, and we know the cardinal rule of the street: do not make eye contact. In London, this is easy because everyone stares at the ground for fear of being stabbed. But up north we give people the time of day, because politeness is in our DNA. We would rather listen to the reasons why we should switch our electricity supplier or give money to dog charities than smash them in the face with a roundhouse kick.

Today is the longest day. Irrational, I know, but I always feel that it is downhill from here.

 

June 19, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
1 Comment

June 16-18: cycle tsar, big chair, solitary confinement

Sunday, June 16

A Father’s Day card (pictured left) from my daughter, in absentia. It seems she has taken to heart my advice that you should always dream the impossible dream.

Today’s papers are full of the Conservative leadership battle, although it would appear Boris’s main rivals (Gove, Hunt, Javid) are now jockeying for positions in his cabinet. In the Sunday Times investigative reporter Andrew Gilligan asserts that beneath the buffoonery Boris is actually a political genius, but also admits that when Johnson was London Mayor, he (Gilligan) was his “cycle tsar” and therefore may be biased.

Despite increasing media consensus that it’s Bojo’s to lose, the history books tell us that the outsider usually wins in Tory leadership elections (Thatcher, Duncan-Smith, Cameron), so my money is still on the will-o-the-wisp Rory Stewart, and not just because he is my MP. Last week, John Oliver even devoted five minutes to him on Last Week Tonight. Meanwhile Boris has declined to appear in a TV debate with the other candidates tonight, on the grounds that it will be “rather cacophonous” – and on this at least he has my vote.

A desultory 30 miles on the bike in aid of Operation Holiday Bod, thence to Keswick again to pick up G and a pal from their Duke of Edinburgh outdoor adventure. They are in high spirits despite (or maybe because of) lack of sleep and a 10-mile yomp from one end of Derwentwater to the other today. No casualties reported overnight, although three of their friends managed to lose their phones. However they seem awestruck that another managed to complete a dozen levels of Kingdom Rush on his whilst crossing the fells. On the way back we stop at the McDonald’s drive-thru, and between them the girls demolish 20 chicken nuggets and two bags of fries in the back of the car.

A leisurely bath listening to Al Murray’s WW2 podcast and then settle down to the final episode of Berlin StationFor some reason the show has been hidden away in the More 4 boondocks despite being consistently excellent for two seasons. Rhys Ifans, as the dissolute CIA agent, is particularly watchable.

 

Monday, June 17

Parker confuses a stick for a tree on his 4am walk

Wide awake at 3.45am. It is as light outside as it was when I went to bed at 10.30pm last night, which makes me wonder if it actually got dark. Take a very confused dog for a walk and conclude that, if this mild form of insomnia continues, I could always become a milkman.

Today has been set aside for the Day Job, so at least I can make an early start. I’m writing a speech for the chief exec of a major UK logistics company. It is weird putting words in other people’s mouths, but at least he is a fellow Geordie so I can chuck in a few jokes about NUFC.

The first time I met him, it transpired that he went to the comprehensive school down the road from where I used to live in Newcastle. When I mentioned that I was a pupil at the fee-paying Royal Grammar, he smiled and said: “Aye – but look who’s in the big chair now!”

Pitch an idea to Nell Dunn, a producer at Radio Cumbria. It’s for a series of in-depth, one-to-one interviews with local notables – a sort of Desert Island Discs, but without the Discs. Working title: Interesting Cumbrians.

 

Tuesday, June 18

Little Rory Stewart is still in the running after the latest Tory leadership vote.

I interviewed him once at an event at Westminster and was impressed with his knowledge of independent cheesemaking in north Cumbria. If this is a sign of his ability to master a brief, then he will make a formidable Prime Minister. He is worryingly thin, though, and I fear that he may struggle to assert himself in those G7 group photos, next to the likes of Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel.

Solitary guy: Gomorrah boss Don Pietro

The next vote is tomorrow, and if he survives then against all the odds Rory will have made it to the final showdown – in which case, all bets are off and his advisors should start feeding him up immediately.

Based on rave reviews for season 4 of Gomorrah, we binge-watch the first three episodes of season 1. Excellent, although I can’t help thinking I’ve seen them before. Or was it something else? Box-set amnesia is very much a thing these days. In episode three the jailed Camorra boss Don Pietro is put in solitary confinement – a 6X6ft cube containing only a mattress. J says she thinks I would probably enjoy it.

In Day Job news, I am now a PR consultant for the British and Irish milling industry – something I would not have predicted this time last month, or indeed ever.

 

June 16, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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June 13-15: Chernobyl fall-out, turd wrangling, zombie invasion

Thursday, June 13

Last night we finally Hoovered up the last two episodes of Chernobyl. It was very good, and suitably harrowing, but is it really the best TV show of all time? Put it this way, in fifteen years I will still be watching re-runs of The Sopranos.

Still, the series has undoubtedly had a cultural impact: in the Times today, a report that tourism to Chernobyl is up 40 per cent, while the deserted streets of Pripyat – where most of the nuclear plant workers lived – are now the must-have backdrop for selfies.

Coincidentally, the curse of social media has been blamed as a contributory factor to the mental health epidemic among young people, according to Radio 4 this morning.

Raymond Krebbs and his spouse.

In an effort to spare my ears from rap music, and to get her interested in current affairs, I appear to have successfully weaned G onto the Today programme during the 15 min school run. My come-uppance today is a stern telling off from an informed 14-year-old about my antediluvian views on the subject – ie, that there is a certain degree of mass hysteria involved, and that in my day etc.

To de-stress, I take the dog to Middle Gelt woods and listen to Dan Maier‘s new radio play. Later I write to congratulate him, both on the play and the fact that out of all our year at school we appear to be the only ones who did not become accountants, stockbrokers or lawyers. [author’s note: although see entry below.]

Did we suffer from teenage mental health issues? As I recall, Dan and I spent most of our time putting lyrics to the theme tunes of popular TV shows of the day, so make of that what you will. Thirty-five years on, my favourite remains our adaptation of the Dallas theme:

Dallas, Dallas/ With J R Ewing/ Bobby, Lucy and Pam/ Miss Ellie and Clayton Farlow/ Raymond Krebbs and his spouse.

Happy days.

 

Friday, June 14

J thinks I should do something with the various completed/semi-completed/rejected manuscripts loitering on my hard drive. She even volunteers to send them off to agents under her name. I can see what my wife is doing, and I suppose in theory she is right – it seems silly to just have them there, gathering…er…bytes? But I still think it will be better to act from a position of strength, ie with a publishing deal under my belt.

Dismal procrastination on my part. Or perhaps I am just scared of further rejection. Either way, a tense early morning discussion ends in stalemate. I retreat to the bathroom and spend five minutes wrangling a recalcitrant turd of Kursk-like proportions around the U-bend with an old toothbrush, which seems symbolic of something, somehow.

Tom Goodman-Hill: owes his successful acting career to me.

A brisk walk in Gelt Woods with Parker. The June deluge has abated today, but the Gelt tears down the ravine, swollen by the sodden fells. Not for nothing is it called “The Mad River”. Listen to The East Coast Listening Post, a Radio 4 series by the Lazy Susan girls. The plots are a bit hit and miss, and sometimes there are too many voices, but they’ve absolutely nailed the smug American podcast style, right down to the commercials, the plinky-plonk Serial music and the editor who sounds like Alex Blumberg.

Postie delivers the latest ONA News, a quarterly update from my alma mater, which is increasingly becoming a thinly-disguised begging letter on behalf of the bursary scheme. Turn to the obituaries. Thankfully the only names I recognise are Max and Tom Hill, who have contributed a piece about their late father. Max was head boy in my day, and fittingly is now Director of Public Prosecutions. Tom was in my year and is now better-known as the actor Tom Goodman-Hill. I once played Wackford Squeers to his Nicholas Nickleby in a junior school production, which is increasingly a claim to fame.

An afternoon spent dealing with Day Job stuff, then 20 miles on the bike in an ongoing effort to shed a few pounds before hols in August. 800 calories burned, apparently, but I suspect there is no defeating the sluggish metabolism of a 51-year-old man.

At 9.30pm a text from Robin, my new next-door neighbour, suggesting a pint. Ends up being four. Home at 11.30pm, 800 calories consumed.

 

Saturday, June 15

Wide awake at 6.15am. It seems I can no longer sleep in, even at weekends, and despite a bellyful of Wainwright’s bitter the night before. Go downstairs, feed the dog, make the tea, fetch the papers.

J likes the Telegraph, but I can only stomach the review section. However, I note that the paper’s current “Agony Uncle” is Richard Madeley, and wonder what part of his career as a mid-morning TV presenter qualifies him to pass judgement on the sexual hang-ups of Telegraph readers. That said, the Telegraph’s previous “Agony Uncle” was Graeme Norton, so perhaps its readers aren’t too choosy where they get their advice.

To Keswick, to drop G off at a campsite in readiness for her Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award outdoor weekend. The road out of the village is blocked by what appears to be a zombie invasion, but on closer examination is the stragglers from a mass-participation endurance event to run the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Most are already shuffling – slowly, painfully – and the bad news is they still have another 50 miles to go. I expect the leaders sprinted through as I was making the morning tea and are already at Vindolanda.

Author, wife, dog: bound for Howtown on the Ullswater steamer

The omens for G are not good: when I picked her up from her practice weekend last month, she promptly burst into tears and said she hated every minute of it. This weekend, rain is forecast in the Lakes. From the back she looks like a huge rucksack on two little legs as she staggers silently and resentfully from the car. It is hard not to feel emotional: at 14 she is, and will always remain, my baby.

A bracing walk along part of the Ullswater Way with J and Parker to clear the head and sweat out the beer. The circuit around the lake is 20 miles – but with zombies still fresh in the memory, we catch the steamer from Glenridding to Howtown and walk back along an undulating, six-mile route in capricious weather conditions. En route, a bench overlooking Ullswater where, 15 years ago, J announced that she was pregnant with G – although I still maintain I had already guessed long before the bombshell was dropped.

In theory a rare night to ourselves should hold all sorts of tantalising possibilities. But after our exertions, and with a combined age of 104, a Tesco curry and an evening in front of the US PGA golf is about all we can manage. On the news, a report from John Myers’ funeral at Carlisle Cathedral today. A suitably grand send-off for a larger-than-life man – but as the Beeb’s Mark McAlindon interviews a mourner on Castle Street, J’s parents are seen to swish past in their Range Rover.

 

 

 

June 12, 2019
by Nick Brownlee
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The Great Void

I have once again entered the Great Void – and so, in order to take my mind off it, and give my still-twitching keyboard fingers something to do, I have decided to write a diary (I tried doing a “vlog” about a year ago, but it really was too much like hard work).

The Great Void will be well-known to any writer who aspires to be published. It consists of those unbearable weeks between a) sending off your manuscript to an agent and b) finding out whether they think it’s any good or not.

If the answer is yes, then your dream is still alive and you can move on to the next phase.

If the answer is no, it has been strangled at birth. Furthermore, you have just wasted the last four-to-six months of your life.

In the last 12 months I’ve acquired a new agent, and in that short time she has already given short shrift to the first two novels I sent her.

I have higher hopes for this one, which I emailed to her earlier this week – although the wearying dread of rejection pervades.  Last week I actually went to see her in London, because we hadn’t actually met. And while she seemed very nice, and I think we got on, it was a muggy day and I was sweating suspiciously after a strenuous walk down the Strand, so who knows what she thought of me.

She says the manuscript is now on her Kindle, but that due to the weight of submissions she is unlikely to read it for at least a fortnight.

I’m pretending to stay cool, but after 10 years of the Great Void my wife can spot the signs a mile off. She has already asked me to move some mattresses into the garage. Soon she will ask me to tidy the garage – a task with is both Herculean and Sisyphean at the same time.

Hence the need to occupy myself on my own terms.

Hence the diary.