The wonderful series of John Murray comic extravaganzas, which runs from Radio Activity through to The Legend of Liz & Joe, features a couple of great examples of the exotic fathers of Cumbria. These are outlandish comic inventions, presented in an affectionate way, providing endless scope for mangling of the English language by immigrants who made Cumbria their home after WW2, namely Klaus Asbach in Radio Activity and Vincenzo Mori in Jazz etc. John captures their ridiculous speech cadences and patterns with, dare it be said, something of the absurdity of Benny Hill at his best.
Klaus’ story is told by his son Ed, who is alternately horrified by and proud of his “deviant father”, not least because his dad’s paintings are hanging in a third of Cumbrian pubs. Klaus apparently painted approximately 2,000 landscapes of the Lake District in 30 years, without ever really going to the lakes. He was, Ed claims, a flesh and blood version of Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson, and altogether rather too much of a character.
Klaus grew up in Asch, Sudetanland, and during WW2 was sent to a POW camp at Bassenthwaite, in Cumbria, and later as a displaced alien applied for British citizenship. Working as a labourer for Jakie Baggrow (Fenton’s forefather perhaps), he learnt to speak “English gibberish”, and that was how a “linguistic monstrosity” developed.
Like a true Cumbrian Klaus worried himself sick about making ends meet, and worked in a succession of lowly factory jobs, doing his landscape paintings in his spare time. He ended up at the Sellafield plant as a process worker, where he contracted a rare form of cancer caused by radiation. This resulted in a small compensation package for his widow Ilse, a refugee from Austria, who was in contrast to Klaus a quiet, tender, nervous, steadfast, sober soul.
In Jazz etc. the story of Vincenzo Mori, or Vince, is told by his son Enzo. Vince migrated to England in 1948, one of twelve from a tiny Naples hamlet who came to Whitehaven, in Cumbria, to work in the pit there. Later Vince becomes an ice cream salesman, while his (yes, steady, quiet, steadfast) wife runs a guest house.
At night Vince plays clarinet and sings in a trad. jazz outfit, The Chompin’ Stompers, and did so for many years, worshipping Mezz Mezzrow’s Really The Blues. Vince also has huge respect for “blurry big brines that make blurry big ponceshillinsonpiss”. Among the classic episodes starring Vince is an occasion where he comes across a package tour of waning 1960s stars, including Lippy Leek (Leapy Lee), Headshoppers Omniboose, Wong Fontana and his Moonbenders, and the Hunni Cums, with inevitably Vince being particularly taken with Honey their singing drummer. He is something of a ladies’ man, and his rake’s progress gets him into all sorts of trouble. At the end of the book we are witnesses at a party for Vince’s seventieth birthday, held in the ballroom of the Chase hotel, Whitehaven, with 200 other people there. This is in 1991.
In contrast to the gloriously outlandish characters of Klaus and Vince, in John Murray’s John Dory there is the redoubtable Mrs Singer who ran her sweet kiosk in Maryport docks, in a tin mission hut which stood from 1920 to 1987. When Ma Singer, or Muriel, sold her last Werther’s mints, or Callard & Bowser’s toffees, her son George (the book’s narrator) took over. George is very different to his mother, whose “drive and willpower were boundless and incredible”. As balance George’s s father, Joe, was “one of the gentlest as well as the stablest people ever to walk the streets of this town”.
In John Dory there is a beautiful scene where George is prompted to remember a nocturnal walk with his dad, up by the deserted pits where by day his father worked as a clerk, and how that night he “felt father’s gentleness, silent tranquillity”. This is part of what George describes as “the improbable fairytale absurdity of my earliest memories,” a recurring feature of John Murray’s wonderful books.
The West Cumbrian childhood of George Singer is recalled in John Dory. He was born in 1936, and with his best friend at primary school, the wonderfully nicknamed Squinty Bar Radish, was taught by Miss Blood, who has returned from retirement to do her bit during wartime. Coincidentally, this is of interest having grown up hearing tales of the inspirational Miss Jones, a lady who had once been to Oxford and had come back at an advanced age to teach kids in wartime Hengoed, including some evacuees who had lost everything in the London Blitz, and how her remarkably high standards had left their mark indelibly and indeed unknown to her were handed down subsequently here, thankfully.
Miss Blood, however, belonged to the school of teaching obviously aligned to the theatres of the absurd and cruelty. She was “a seasoned flagellomaniac”, and under her evil eye the not-so-bright Squinty suffers, while the smart arse George duels with her mercilessly. Actually Squinty doesn’t have a lot of luck, full stop, which makes for wonderful farce, as in the episode involving his mother’s “emetic winter tatie pot”.
Even better is the Rabelaisian outdoor bog episode, which features another less-than-loveable teacher Miss Briar, for which George feels slightly guilty when he remembers her kindness in taking him on a daytrip to Carlisle and recalls his insides slowly melting when seeing mesmerising pre-Raphaelite paintings for the first time. Actually it is the unexpected tender touch like that which makes John Murray’s writing so magical.
George Singer, looking back wistfully, decides that his Maryport childhood “clearly had been characterised by an intensity, a vivid and uneven poetry that made my adult existence seem embarrassingly paltry”. The same could be said of Roe Murphy in John’s Murphy’s Favourite Channels. Roe was born in 1950, the same year as John Murray, presumably not coincidentally.
Roe and his mate Flogger, also known as Turnip Brains and more formally as Humphrey Farrell, grew up in a very small West Cumbrian village, and their Fingland fables are fabulous fun, with episodes involving going to the pictures in the Fingland Miners’ Welfare Hall to see The Cockleshell Heroes and The Three Stooges, finding an odd gunman on the loose in the local woods, and rousing the wrath at school of Karin the Tollergill bruiser.
As the kids grow older they drift apart, going to different schools, so seeing less of each other, having less in common. Flogger as a young man goes to work in a sweet factory, becomes sex made, parades around in ice blue jeans. Roe is less sure in his sex life, and less efficient, hence the wonderful scene where he and the love of his life Sheila Starr are interrupted in a local wood by a curious white horse which farts at an inopportune moment, marring the magic of the scene, though rendering it unforgettable.
This drifting apart of old school friends is a bit of a theme in John Murray’s books, with the narrator going off to the nearest Grammar School, and subsequently onto university, gradually becoming a disappointed man, a highly-educated and far-from-everyday failure, making a mess of marriage, having fidelity issues, with all the attendant complications and consequences. And John’s narrators do seem to have a lot in common when it comes to passions.