Booze, sex and philosophy from the gutter: Reading Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’

“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms,” says Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski the fictional alter-ego of legendary boozehound writer and  “laureate of American lowlife” (as Time magazine dubbed him) Charles Bukowski in his 1978 novel “Women”.

I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.

(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)

The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.

“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”

This drought is then broken by a period of romping that would have made Don Juan proud. It begins with half-crazed divorced mother of two Lydia Vance (the fictional version of Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend, the sculptor and playwright Linda King), whom Chinaski meets at a poetry reading:

She put both hands on the edge of the table, bent over and looked at me. She had long brown hair, quite long, a prominent nose and one eye didn’t quite match the other. But she projected vitality – you knew that she was there. I could feel vibrations running between us.

Woman, Charles Bukowski

Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.

“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”

At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.

It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.

But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.

It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.

Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”

Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.

Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.

Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.

And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.

Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).

If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)

Bidding adieu to the great Inspector Morse (and the greatest ending to a TV show ever)

Near the end of the final episode of Inspector Morse, we find the great British detective sitting outside an Oxford pub with his faithful sidekick Lewis drinking a beer despite strict doctors orders.

His health failing, and two months out from a forced retirement, that will involve listening to Wagner, reading the classics and pursuing his newest hobby: birdwatching, Morse is feeling melancholy and regretful.

Trying to cheer him up, Lewis tells Morse to look out at the sun setting majestically like a Turner painting across green English fields behind them. Morse looks, pauses for a moment to think, and then recites, with a feeling of impending doom, the final stanza from his favourite poet AE Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright:

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day

The final three words of Housman’s marvelous poem, which seems to convey everything I love about the show (what other TV detective could recite melancholy poetry and not sound like a nonce?) is also the title of Morse’s final caper: a series of murders linked to the bludgeoning death of a wealthy socialite and nymphomaniac.

Not wanting to spoil it for those who have not watched it or are still making their way through the series, I won’t reveal the show’s final moments.

However, I can say, that I don’t think I have ever been more emotionally affected by the ending of a fictional television series. It left me in a state of profound and palpable melancholy, like I was saying good bye to an adored uncle, whom I would never see again.

Such was my dismay at reaching the end of the show, that I briefly thought about starting the series from the very beginning. Eventually my dark mood lifted, though I obsessively kept on reading and reciting the Houseman poem. (You can read it in full here).

Part of this melancholy I am certain had to do with John Thaw, the wonderful actor who played Morse, and who in his personality and manner was in many ways a mirror of Morse – a deep thinker, a lover of classical music, a decent man.

There is also the added tragedy that Thaw sadly died in 2002, just two years after the final episode aired. and only 60 at the time.

Soon after I watched the final episode of Inspector Morse, I listened to John Thaw being interviewed way back in 1990 on Desert Island Discs, the classic BBC radio program and podcast in which guests talk about their lives, whilst revealing their eight favourite pieces of music they would take with them if stranded on a desert island.

All of Thaw’s musical selections, apart from a song sung by his wife (the acclaimed actress Sheila Hancock) in the musical Annie, are classical or operatic works, a selection Morse himself would have no doubt enjoyed (though, no Wagner!).

Introducing Thaw and summarising his highly versatile career to that point, Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley notes his two most memorable roles were playing the “troubled, but likeable” Morse and “rough, tough” Jack Regan in London police drama The Sweeney.

Given Thaw’s preference for a quiet life laced with classical music, Lawley suggests to him “there’s rather more of Morse in you than Regan?”

“Oh most certainly, yes,” Thaw agrees in his soft, purring voice.

Thaw says he got his love of classical music from his friend and fellow acting great, Tom Courtenay, whilst both were students at RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London. Struggling with the part of Mephistopheles in a production of Faust, Courtney encouraged Thaw to listen to the 1st Symphony by Sibelius.

Casting aside his prejudices (“What a load of rubbish, I thought”) Thaw says he was “utterly transfixed”.

“It changed my life, [listening to Sibelius] that day.”

Thaw was 48 at the time of the interview, coincidentally the same age as I am now.

Thaw jokes that the crew who worked on Inspector Morse thought he was a lot older, and that’s certainly how I felt when I watched the white haired, often curmudgeonly great British detective work at solving the latest baffling murder.

“I was born old or looking old, ” says Thaw.

“I started to go grey during The Sweeney and then went totally white. It’s a hereditary thing.”

Asked what he considered his best professional work, Thaw says it has to be Morse.

“It’s a quality product, I acted pretty well and we get good scripts, yet it is also very popular with the public” he says

“All those things coming together would give me the most pleasure.”

I was extremely late to the joys of Thaw’s chief inspector Morse, who made his on-screen debut way back in 1987, driving around the narrow streets of Oxford in his classic red Jaguar Mark 2, and resembling my father somewhat in appearance.

I bought the first couple of seasons on DVD, but as they were pricey, ended up watching the majority of the 33 feature-length episodes (based on the books by Colin Dexter) on YouTube over the last 3-4 years.

It has been a very private pleasure: my wife finds the show slow and boring and Morse annoying in his old fashioned habits and so I have watched the entire series on my own.

The final episode, The Remorseful Day, was released on November 15, 2000, and watched by 12 million Britons. Around the world over a billion people have enjoyed Morse cerebral brilliance, penchant for classical music and cryptic crosswords and for sharing his astute insights into criminal behaviour over a pint or two of good English ale.

Because each episode is feature-movie length – about 90 minutes – they allow for the story to unfold slowly, for the parade of suspects and motives to be investigated by Morse and Lewis, whilst providing scope for a couple of obligatory trips to the pub.

 “Think? That’s why I want [another drink] – to think. I don’t drink for pleasure!” is Morse’s annoyed reaction to Lewis’s suggestion in the final episode that maybe another beer is not a good idea.

For me, part of Morse’s charm is his complex and paradoxical character: easily angered, often short-tempered and with zero tolerance for fools, he is also by equal measure kind, compassionate, patient and sensitive.

A seemingly confirmed bachelor set in his ways, Morse is nonetheless always on the lookout for romance, and tends to find it in troubled and doomed relationships.

His tempestuous relationship with Lewis, a working class Geordie copper trying to climb up the detective ladder, is another delight of the show. (Kevin Whately starred in a successful spin-off of Inspector Morse called Inspector Lewis which ran for nine seasons).

Detective Sergeant Lewis: Still, at least we can make one arrest.

Chief Inspector Morse: Who’s that?

Detective Sergeant Lewis: This Sophocles chap.

Chief Inspector Morse: Lewis, Sophocles died two and a half thousand years ago.

Often annoyed at Lewis’s ignorance of history, the classics, art and philosophy and unsympathetic to Lewis’s desire to manage his family life at home, Morse nonetheless becomes a kind of father figure to Lewis, educating him in the wiles of human nature and taking obvious pleasure when Lewis surprises him with an educated answer or brilliant idea.

“Well done Lewis,” Morse says on many an occasion.

As the show progresses, their relationship evolves significantly to an extent that it is Lewis, who becomes Morse’s educator, especially in the ways of modern technology, whilst remaining steadfastly his loyal confidant and defender.

Died too soon: John Thaw, a monstrous talent

Of course there is also the writing – Colin Dexter’s classic crime novels, full of false leads, red herring, and of course Morse (based on Dexter’s own tastes) are brilliantly translated to the small screen by many talented screenwriters including by people like Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley, The English Patient) Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) who would all go on to become award-winning Hollywood movie directors.

Also key to the pleasure of Inspector Morse is the location: the university town of Oxford with its glorious medieval buildings, hallowed halls, alcoves and passageways, where Morse must often venture inside to interview suspects, as well as his frequent trips out to grand country estates and manor houses.

(Funnily enough, one of my favourite episodes, The Promised Land, is mostly set in Australia, as Morse and Lewis journey Down Under to locate a police informant).

Each episode is intriguing beyond just the excellent whodunnit aspect (it is almost impossible to pick the murderer), focusing in on the very human flaws of those caught up in treachery and tragedy. In this regard, Morse, who has keen sense of morality, is frequently appalled by the greed, pain and misery he uncovers. Despite his intuition, Morse professes genuine bewilderment at the actions of those he apprehends.

Morse: I’m old and unmarried, and I don’t understand human nature. What does it matter?

Lewis: How old are you?

Morse: I forget, Robbie.

Watching all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse has been a personal, almost secret pleasure of mine, often enjoyed with a glass or two of wine, whilst the family slept.

There have been some terrific endings to TV series – some of the best being Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Better Call Saul and some terrible ones – Killing Eve come most strongly to mind.

But none have concluded a story better than the final adventure of Inspector Morse. No finale has been more fitting to the greatest detective of them all.

RIP Morse and John Thaw

Murdering the ratings: Why Jeffery Dahmer got two hit TV shows

“The only way I’ll ever get a television series made about me is if I become a serial killer,” I told my wife sarcastically, as we started watching a new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffery Dahmer Story” a dramatised retelling of the crimes of one of the world’s most infamous (and revolting) mass murderers.

“Do I need to be worried?” she replied.


We’d watched about 40 minutes of the first of 10 episodes, when we both decided we’d had enough.

An African American man had been lured to Dahmer’s dingy Milwaukee flat, where he’d been partially drugged, threatened with an enormous knife and forced to sit on a blood-stained bed, while awaiting his hideous fate. A huge blue, industrial vat sat ominously in the corner of the room and the atmosphere was oppressive, almost unbearable.

“I don’t think I am in the mood to sit through 10 episodes of this,” I remarked, at which point my wife nodded in agreement and we stopped watching and found something distinctly lighter to enjoy with our cups of tea and biscuits. (For the record it was “Julia” about the life of the famous American television chef Julia Child, an excellent show).

And then what did I do a couple of weeks later?

Undecided about what to watch while my wife gobbled up episodes of the Walking Dead – I can’t handle the tension of that show, nor the constant gargling sounds of zombies – I started watched the other Dahmer show, the documentary series “Conversations with a Killer: The Jeffrey Dahmer Tapes”.

Based around previously unheard taped interviews with Dahmer and Wendy Patrickus, who was his defense attorney, the three part series travelled back and forward in time, cutting from grainy, homemade videos of Dahmer as a sweet, fair-headed child to those grisly scenes at the notorious Milwaukee apartment block as the barrels of human remains were carried down the stairs by crime scene investigators. In between we heard excerpts from the tapes in which Dahmer confesses his crimes and tries, unsuccessfully to explain his actions, and interviews with detectives, psychologists and former friends and neighbours.

There have been plenty more of these shows that have kept me mesmerised. I’ve watched dramatisation of the life of Ted Bundy (starring Zac Efron), a BBC series about London asphyxiator John Christie (played by Tim Roth) and another London killer Denis Nilsen (played to perfection by David Tennant) plus numerous documentary series about Richard Ramirez AKA The Night Stalker, David Berkowitz AKA The Son of Sam and. Peter Sutcliffe AKA The Yorkshire Ripper.

I’ve also watched another Netflix documentary series about Ted Bundy (Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes), while there’s another documentary series on my “must watch list” about the American serial killer Wayne Gacy ( who terrifyingly dressed up as a clown at children’s parties).

I don’t there is anything particular wrong or unusual about this viewing behaviour – I’m certainly, to calm my family and friends, not trying to pick up any tips. The truth of the matter is that everyone is part fascinating, revolted and intrigued by the “evil that men do” particularly of the psycopathic kind and especially when the monster looks like Dahmer: a normal, even somewhat handsome young man.

With 856 million hours of combined viewing and counting, The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been watched more than 95 million times from start to finish. Only Squid Game (1.65 billion hours) and Stranger Things Season 4 (1.35 billion) have been watched more.

Alongside the success of the dramatised series, the Jeffery Dahmer documentary series has also been a minor hit for Netflix, racking up millions of hours of viewing time.

No doubt Netflix executives must be delighted, though that might be tempered with the disappointment that there can be no second season. However, you can be certain someone at Netflix HQ is working on the next series and accompanying documentary about another sadistic mass murder.

While The Jeffery Dahmer Story has been lauded for its superb acting, disturbing and compelling storyline, and gritty realism, it seems to have emerged for no real purpose except gaudy entertainment. Dahmer was captured in 1992 and murdered in jail by a fellow inmate in 1994. Many would wish his name never be mentioned again.

But rather than forget about him and his reign of terror, Netflix has brought Dahmer’s vicious killing, dismembering and cannibalism spree back to live in vivid colour. In the process, their huge success has created fresh torment for the families of the 17 boys and young men who would have been alive today were it not for his unfathomable compulsions.

The same could be said for the documentary series though at least this provides fresh insights – these tapes have never been heard before – and gives the viewer a sense of the terrible impact his killing spree had on the Milwaukee community and the families of his victims.

(Incredibly, Dahmer could have been stopped after his very first killing – that of hitchhiker Stephen Hicks in 1978 when Dahmer was just 18 – had the police officer who stopped him to perform a drink driving test taken the time to look at what was in the garbage bags on the backseat, instead of believing Dahmer’s story that they contained animal remains).

Not surprisingly, the release of “Dahmer – Monster” has been met with rage, anger and disbelief by the family’s of his victims who were apparently not consulted about the making of the show, and which has reignited the grief they have had to live with for more than 30 years.

“It hurts. I shed tears. They’re not tears of sorrow, and it’s not disbelief in the Lord. The tears [are] tears of hurt because it hurts. It hurts real bad. But you have to trust and pray and just keep going day by day,” said Shirley Hughes, the mother of Tony Hughes, an aspiring male model, who was just 31 when Dahmer killed him.

The show’s writer Ian Brennan (who also wrote the hit musical series Glee) has defended his work as an “objective” portrayal, though professes amazement at its success:

“I think we show a human being. He’s monstrously human and he’s monstrously monstrous and that’s what we wanted to sort of unpack,” Brennan told news website Page Six at its premier

Also coming to its defense has been journalist Nancy Glass, the last person to interview Dahmer.

She perhaps gave the most telling and obvious reasons for the show’s success and many other similar shows”

“I know that that may seem bizarre, but I think it’s more about morbid curiosity than romanticism,” she told the New York Post.

One wonders what Dahmer himself would thought of a 10-episode dramatisation of his life and a three-part documentary series more than 30 years after his capture. Given his manifest inability to control his urges, it would be entirely plausible to think that he’d have “gotten off” on watching it all happen again. One can only but shudder at the thought.

“It was a compulsion. It became a compulsion,” he said in his last interview (watched 35 million times on YouTube).

In these interviews, Dahmer is softly spoken, articulate and appears highly intelligent. He also had a by all accounts happy childhood, and is described by his parents as a loving child, though one who took an interest at an early age in dead things.

Somehow this morphed into an obsession with the male human body, though why he then went on to murder, dismember, eat and preserve parts of his victims, even Dahmer cannot fathom.

Perhaps it this potential in everyone, to come apart at the seams, that drives our own fascination with true crime and violent killers.

No doubt Netflix and the other streaming platforms are well aware of this and have plenty more similar shows up their sleeves.