A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

I will be on holiday soon for a couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 29th March

A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

When was the last time you solved a nagging personal problem by breaking the law?  Never?  Me neither. But let me tell you about a friend of mine I shall call Maria, married and living in the countryside, who somewhere around the mid-1980s, when she was about 30, had a problem that was driving her mad. A skilled and natural driver, she kept failing her driving test simply because she was so pent up and nervous at the all or nothing ordeal. Because she lived out in the sticks, she needed reliable transport to her job in the town, plus she was planning to have a child, and there was no way she could rely on non-existent rural buses, nor exorbitant taxis, and with Jack her overworked husband giving her inconvenient lifts everywhere, it was proving onerous and a strain on them both. So it was that on her fourth attempt, before going into the Test Centre, she nipped into the public toilets and took a hefty swig of odourless vodka, a double or possibly a triple measure, whereafter she sailed through her test and indeed the elderly male examiner congratulated her on her impressive navigational finesse.

There is a whole array of moral issues to be debated here, and any reasoned outcome might well be inconclusive. Supposing Maria had kept on failing her test for say another 2 years, with the rural housing market completely stagnant at the time, it is not impossible the marriage might have broken up with them trapped there in their remote but no longer idyllic cottage, she might well have ended up a single mother without a car, she might well have lost her job. Needless to say, once she passed her test and with a small child in tow, she never drank and drove, and for sure she never will. So what she did to make life tolerable for herself and her partner and the imminent child, was an act of lucid and ad hoc expediency rather than moral recklessness, even if I doubt that many others would follow her example. And given that we are talking about the pragmatic use of hazardous alcohol, it’s also relevant to recall life in impoverished mining villages in the UK somewhere around the 1920s and 30s, when colliers on exhausting shift work simply could not be allowed to have broken sleep. If there was a young baby in the house and it was teething and crying, the mother would often take out the rum bottle normally reserved for Christmas cakes and puddings, and put some rum on the baby’s dummy to make it go to sleep. The objective reality of giving a tiny baby strong spirits, however little, is certainly shocking, but with the acoustics of poky back to back mining cottages, of divorce for working folk being non-existent, and the prosecution of domestic violence ditto, what meaningful choice did a practically-minded collier’s wife have at that point?

There are by my count 3 principal ways of dealing with the Bashing Your Head Against a Brick Wall scenario. The most common one is to just keep on vainly bashing and exhausting yourself, possibly until your dying day, with temporary relief in the form of e.g. amnesic weekend holiday breaks if you can afford them, drinking, gambling, and possibly adultery, whether or not you can afford it. The second option is a mystical or spiritual and occasionally psychotherapeutic one, variations on the Zen koan or exercising a paradoxical approach to an intractable problem. The controversial US writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) who was full of homely didactic wisdom often culled from oriental sources, fittingly once quoted a Zen Buddhist saying about brick walls, which went:

Stand still and watch the wall crumble

As I’ve mentioned earlier in these pages, there is the apocryphal tale of two famous Surrealist painters, one of whom I believe was the Belgian, Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The two artists liked each other very much, but were always painfully tongue-tied in each other’s presence, so much so it looked as if the friendship might have to end. Then one of them (remember that he was an artist hence easily seized by unrehearsed inspiration) one day took a pure Zen approach, and instead of mumbling and squirming and blushing at his lack of words, promptly cracked the other one across the face, full across the chops! Satori! Liberation! It was high risk inspiration you might say, but instead of it leading to cascading not to say surreal fisticuffs, it instantly broke the ice, they both started laughing heartily, and they had no communication problems ever after.

In a therapeutic context, there exists something rather on the same lines. A few unusually imaginative psychotherapists, working with those who have a stuck obsession or phobia or fear of losing control, sometimes apply the Paradoxical Injunction method, as a means of reversing the existential blockage, so to speak. Thus, in the American context, we read of a middle-aged woman Maisie institutionalised in a mental hospital for acts of non-dangerous violence, meaning she never actually attacked anyone, but had a habit at home of threatening to go berserk and wrecking the joint, and occasionally actually doing so. Then one day, the farsighted therapist in charge, had the idea of actually encouraging Maisie to go berserk rather than forbidding it, so that he got all his staff to put temptingly smashable but dispensable and non-hazardous objects all over the main reception area, when all the other residents were away on an outing. He then more or less grinned and taunted Maisie to do her worst, whereupon seized by decades of repressed rage, she started smashing and smashing unrestrained. At long last she got tired of, even bored by her epic vandalism, sat down exhausted on the sofa, and alongside her therapist started laughing her head off. Thanks to the paradoxical injunction, she had broken the deadening and debilitating taboo, meaning the projected and introjected and pathological rules she had lived by most of her days, especially during her grotesquely puritanical childhood. At last those rules had been proved by physical means to be existentially false, and from then on Maisie started to improve and would eventually return to the world. And the catharsis you will note, could not be achieved by talk or reasoning or reasonableness, but only by Maisie seizing the prohibition by the horns and overturning it in the form of physically, with her muscles, breaking those bogus childhood rules.

The third way of demolishing the brick wall is by the exercise of imaginative or creative thinking, best exemplified by the Maltese physician and academic Edward de Bono (born 1933) in his theory of Lateral Thinking, a concept he first expounded in 1967. It is the antithesis or perhaps imaginative counterpart of Logical Thinking, which sees deduction and induction and error-seeking as the primary rational means. Lateral Thinking is very often more on the lines of Playful Thinking, in the sense of provocatively asking seemingly inane or pointless questions at times. For example, why should most cups have handles, which demand greater ceramic time and more ceramic expenditure, even if they stop you burning your hands? Whereupon a lateral thinker might suggest that some cheap insulating material be put where the handle would be, or that an external holder, a cheap cardboard container with a cardboard grip be offered…an image which takes me back nostalgically, almost tearfully in fact, to the old British Rail and its Golden Blend coffee in those ground-breaking paper cups. An attractive analogue of the provocative question, why do we always have to have entity X, is the glorified party game which should never be scorned, whereby a bunch of people brainstorm any given problem (should Mary here marry George, currently on a boys only holiday in Benidorm, who is rather good at disguising his alcohol consumption?) to give as many practical decision-making options as possible. They should be rapidly and spontaneously generated, including any ludicrous options (George is really brilliant at pulling crazy faces) and then they can be reduced to the most liberating and imaginative core by the person with the problem, meaning Mary. Mary, in her crucial decision making, is opening up the emotional and imaginative possibilities, simply by the radical energy proliferated by creative brainstorming.

A word or two of obvious caution, though. Some of the least imaginative and least benign people in the world, like to brag about their own capacity for Lateral Thinking, but interestingly they call it something else, and overall, in the UK at least, they favour the cheery if decerebrated vocabulary of Rotarian after dinner speakers. Hence the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that not always inspired Bullingdon Club graduate, he who laid Brexit on us by offering a referendum to the good old British public…he our PM was forever talking in reverential terms about ‘Thinking Outside of The Box’. The rent-a-cliché vacuity of this pre-packaged discourse was laid bare in other oleaginous formulae, specially designed to make your flesh itch. Namely, and apropos Tory political maxims or economic strategies he would say, ‘It Does What It Says on The Tin’ and re those unsettling not to say irritating and treacherous differences of collective strategic viewpoint, he would sunnily enquire ‘Are We Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet?’

Boxes, tins, hymn sheets? Imaginatively and subliminally speaking, seemingly we are back in the cosily retarded world of the 1930s, when you will recall Britain ruled a quarter of the world as colony, dominion and protectorate (which sonorous term is surely its own antonym, is it not?). There is no mystery then about why so many people voted for Brexit, for with every nerve they are hankering after the good old days when like so many selfless and saintly monarchs they and their like amnesically ruled the grateful globe…

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THE MAN WHO LET IT ALL HANG OUT

The next post will be on or before Thursday 7th March

THE MAN WHO LET IT ALL HANG OUTT

I was once told that there is an exotic rodent somewhere in Asia, who performs a type of spring cleaning (other sunny, not to say inane anthropomorphic terms, would be ‘downsizing’, ‘rationalising’, ‘decluttering’) by shoving what they regard as superfluous stuff out of their burrow and letting it accumulate immediately outside. Believe me, the same rodent would get on like a house on fire with Bojan the Serbian handyman, who lives a few doors down from me, and the two of them could swap notes for hours about what to classify as decadent surplus and what as integral essential. In the space of a few months, Bojan, who comes from Belgrade, and is divorced with a married daughter living back in Serbia, has lined up immediately outside his spartan one room Kythnos bedsit, for the whole world to see and marvel at, the following beguiling objects:-

-a newish but sadly defunct washing machine, inside of which was visible for a while, a single grubby white trainer. The shoe soon disappeared, and up until this morning it had a bright red and empty Lay’s salt-flavoured crisp/patatakia packet relaxing within its innards. This morning instead of the crisp packet, it had a scraggy stray cat gawking phlegmatically out as it sheltered from the rain

-leaning against the washing machine, a massive bag of solidified cement, which would break my back if I tried to lift it, and might even strain the wiry and fearless sinews of short and very skinny Bojan

-symmetrically opposite the washing machine, a lovely pair of pristine blue designer trainers, which can only have been rejected because they don’t fit Bojan, and indeed seem to be designed either for a child or for a petite woman. There is no mystery to this, as Bojan’s destitution evokes pity in plenty around him, and he is always receiving things like costly denims from kindly island folk, keen to give away what suddenly doesn’t fit them, meaning what alas would go three times round Bojan’s meagre hips and as a rule, wholly invisible arse. More touchingly, the old widow opposite, Tasoula, aware that Bojan isn’t looking after himself, gives him surplus doppio food she has cooked, and as very often he doesn’t come to the door but is prostrate inside with tsipuro brandy, she simply hangs the foil-wrapped stuffed peppers or brisola chops  or bean fasoladha on the doorknob inside a carrier bag, so that all he has to do is wake up to this fairytale surprise, and dozily heat it up on his ancient Baby Belling.

“Ti na kanoume?” he mutters stoically, and with only the tiniest trace of self-pity, each time  I see him. “But what can I do? What is to be done?”

I’ve given some examples of his mesmerising drift towards personal entropy, but just to add that next to the discarded footwear is a glinting motor out of someone’s abandoned car, and in front of that two dilapidated small motorbikes, one a Honda 70 that he sometimes with a purple-faced struggle gets to work, for as it was made in 1966 it is older than Bojan who at 52 was born in 1967, contemporaneous with the coup by the Greek Fascist Junta, that is. The glossier, smirking youth of a machine that sits beside it, hails from the late non-Fascist 1970s and is a Honda 90, but Bojan is working on that, it goes only fitfully, and he manages a kind of all or nothing mobility by cursing at and cajoling both of them until one of the two finally relents and submits to his desperation. The point is, as a jobbing handyman he has to have transport, as some of the building work is 10 kilometres away, and the only reliable supplier to the building trade is a 20-minute journey, all of it a steep uphill. Three years ago, Bojan actually possessed a rusted 1962 saloon car, with the boot and back seat and passenger seat full of his tools and random junk, a patient but tuberculous vehicle which coughed its way everywhere with an exhaust that seemed to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as it hiccupped along to wherever the job might be. In those days Bojan lived somewhere rather smarter, in a proper one bedroom flat with a monthly rent of 250, and then two cruel misfortunes happened together. His car finally died on him with as they say zilch compression from the engine, and his irate landlady kicked him out for six months unpaid rent. His solution was to fuse the 2 tragedies and over the summer of 2016 he lived and slept among the wrenches and oil cans and giant spanners in his car, and whatever scant work he acquired he reached by his put-put Honda 70 that was a year his senior, and which could no doubt remember exactly what Greek Fascism was like.

Bojan’s rent is now a bargain 150, for he resides in a single room with a curtained off kitchen and a partitioned toilet, and any time I have stood at his door I have beheld a surreal and very impressive clutter, reminiscent of the ancient Steptoe and Son rag and bone man comedy from the BBC.  Even so, I initially racked my brains as to how on earth he could pay even that meagre rent. Competent as he is in all DIY fields, meaning he is a skilled electrician, plumber, joiner, gardener, builder, painter and decorator, Bojan gets almost no work in the winter and spring, and not even much at the height of summer. He can only manage his peppercorn rent because the landlord owns property all over the island, and Bojan offers him payment in kind by regular maintenance. The trouble is the landlord demands a great deal of work to pay off the rent, so that it pans out about 3 euros an hour, even less than jobbing Albanian labourers are paid, those who usually make 60 euros in cash for a 12 hour day….

 “Ti na kanoume? But what can I do?”

Then, should he be in a mordant and eloquent mood, Bojan lists his sorrows, which are almost on a par with Job’s. He has currently no money whatever in his pockets, because he has no proper work other than his landlord’s payment in kind. His wi-fi has been cut off for non-payment, and one of Bojan’s small but abiding joys is putting up jokey, even saucily rude Facebook posts (women with comically outsize breasts and backsides, underneath which he writes a lubricious not unsexist caption) and of course he can’t use any café wi-fi, as he cannot afford to buy a drink anywhere. Then to cap all, at only 52, he is afflicted with incipient arthritis, because of decades of toiling outside in bad weather. The island doctor had told him to take regular exercise to help matters, so that up to four times a day like a penniless prisoner on supervised release, he will parade up and down the sea front for the sake of his back which of course is essential for him to lie on when prostrate with Greek brandy.

At his poorest, Bojan is inevitably marooned inside his room all day, and he nurses himself with copious draught tsipuro, which tastes very much like his native slivovic,a kind of Slavonic raki that instead of being made of grapes, is made out of plums. At this point, one might grotesquely reflect that the Belgrade man keeps on shoving random objects outside of his poky bedsit, just to show the world that he is still alive in the formal and minimal sense, and that it is indeed possible for someone to survive and be alive without any money whatever….

Which is of course not true. No one, unless they are an incarcerated prisoner, can survive on nil income, and yet, and this is the perennial and insoluble miracle, Bojan has been living on more or less nothing for all the 5 years I’ve known him. Like most East Europeans and Greeks, he smokes like a chimney, and is never without cigarettes and often they are packet Marlboros, rarely humble roll ups. His draught booze he gets in a plastic litre bottle from a supermarket, but even draught raki isn’t free. His rent does not include electricity and water, yet every night I notice there is a light in his room, and it is not candlelight, so he must have paid his bill somehow. For a long time I thought he was being subbed by his Belgrade daughter, but then one day when he was miraculously in funds he told me he had to wire her some urgent money, as not only was her husband, the charmingly named Ratko, addicted to slivovic but worse than that was a crazy gambler, and Zara had no money to feed Bojan’s 2 little grandchildren, so had turned to her old Dad who lived in Greece for lifesaving help. Then, once, as delicately as I could, I asked him if he managed to get any credit from the local shops, but he snorted and said only one of the port supermarkets would give him occasional electrical work, but would pay him only in shop goods, not with cash.

Bojan added, with a quaint solemnity: “You can’t pay your wi-fi bill with a tin of fucking tuna. Can you, eh?”

He looked at me then for a long and scrutinising moment, as if I might provide some kind of answer. As it happened I gave him all the DIY work I could, if only because my own practical skills were on a par with Homer Simpson’s, with whom I have long felt an enormous fraternal solidarity. And isn’t it very odd, I asked myself once, that I happen to have an important role model who was not in fact a person but a cartoon drawing?

He went on furiously, “You can’t pay your phone bill with a dozen fucking eggs? Can you, eh?”

It was the first time ever I had seen him looking truly angry at the treacherous and heartless human race, as opposed to intractable physical objects like car engines or recalcitrant stopcocks.

I said quickly, “No. No, you can’t.”

Then I racked my brains to think of some DIY job I didn’t really need, and right enough the inspiration quickly came, and Bojan followed me home at once, and we chatted emphatically about landlords and landladies and shop prices, and the fact that a feeble 5 euro note bought you almost nothing worth having these days…

THE POGUES AND DR SEX

The next post will be on or before Thursday 28th February

THE POGUES AND DR SEX

(ANSWERS TO MY VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ)

The winner (and only entrant!) was DS Mackay of Glasgow, Scotland who got the last 3 questions right. He rightly assumed that no one would get the other 4, which one other would-be competitor described as ‘hard’. I have sent him signed copies of 2 of my novels as promised

1.Which world-famous band who sang in English had a name in a foreign language that included the imperative of the verb ‘to kiss’?

The band’s name could only translate as either ‘Kiss me Quickly’ or ‘Kiss my Arse’, and you’re right, it is the latter. The British-Irish punk band The Pogues started off in Kings Cross, London in 1982 and were then called The Pogue Mahones, an anglicised version of pog mo thoine which is Irish Gaelic for ‘kiss my arse’…

2. In which language does the word ‘dashuri’ mean ‘love’?

Albanian. Note also that if you are a foreigner, you can always make Albanians laugh with the rhyme dua grua which means ‘I want a woman’. Re which, see also Uncle Theo, the mental patient in Fellini’s 1973 comic masterpiece Amarcord, who climbs a tree and won’t come down, shouting in his desperation to the whole world Voglio la donna!

3. A Victorian author from London wrote a novel in which an obscure Cumbrian seaside village provided the romantic denouement. Give the name of the author, the novel and the seaside village

It was George Gissing, best known for ‘New Grub Street’, who wrote the fine ‘The Odd Women’ (1893) whose romantic climax takes place in Seascale, near Whitehaven, Cumbria. Gissing visited Seascale and the Lake District as a child. You might also have heard of Seascale in the context of it having an anomalous number of childhood leukaemias in the late 1970s, possibly on account of its proximity to the BNFL/ Sellafield nuclear facility. Note that the distinguished UK feminist press Virago printed 2 novels, both of them written by Victorian men and both sympathetic to women, one ‘The Odd Women’ and the other ‘Diana of the Crossways’ by George Meredith

4. Which US singer had 2 romantic hits which started with the words ‘Take’ and ‘More’ respectively. (Give away clue. One of his names sounds like a single letter of the alphabet)

It was Bobby Vee aka Robert Velline (1943-2016) whose two 1961 hits ‘Take Good Care of my Baby’ and ‘More Than I Can Say’ made it to numbers 3 and 4 in the UK Top 10. He was only 18 years old with both hits, and he was also my very favourite singer when I was aged 10 in 1961. That day many years ago when the late Bob Monkhouse smashed up one of my hero’s records on Radio Luxembourg’s ‘Smash Hits’, I was very angry. Sadly, Bobby Vee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2012. Bob Dylan once went public that Vee was ‘the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on stage with’. Be aware also, that being called Bobby in 1961 in the States was a big help if you were a celebrity male singer, as witness Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell and Bobby Darin (I hope you also noticed the 2 truncated Bobbys = Bobs= Dylan and Monkhouse above)

5.Why would a stick of celery have romantic associations (keep it clean)?

Celery along with chocolate, chilies and pomegranates, is recognised as an aphrodisiac food. It contains the steroid androstenone (also found in truffles) which explains why men since the 18th century, up to and including modern porn stars, have been guzzling celery to enhance their performance. Apparently, if a female pig inhales androstenone she immediately assumes the mating stance…

6. Which author of a famous sex manual filed for divorce claiming that the marriage had never been consummated?

It was the Englishwoman Marie Stopes (1880-1958) and she divorced her first husband who was a Canadian called Reginald Ruggles Gates. She published ‘Married Love or Love in Marriage’ in 1918 which included controversial material on contraception and it became an instant bestseller, though she was later taken to court by a Catholic professor. She lectured on paleobotany at University College, London and was the first female academic at Manchester University

7. Which self-professed anarchist believed that serious lovers should think in culinary gourmet terms?

Easy this, and the word ‘gourmet’ was the give-away clue. In 1972 Dr Alex Comfort (1920-2000) who was a doctor, novelist, anarchist and pacifist published ‘The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking’ which was another spectacular bestseller. Borrowing from the great oriental writers like Vatsyayana of the Kamasutra, he stressed that sexual foreplay was the be all and end all, and that asking your partner what they wanted and giving them it if possible, was the ideal. He quickly became known as Dr Sex, and his 30-year marriage broke up soon after. His second wife had been his (presumably secret) mistress for the previous 10 years

NB. There were only 7 questions as 7 is a more romantic number than 10…

VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ

The next post will be on or before Thursday 21st February

VALENTINE’S DAY QUIZ

1.Which world-famous band who sang in English had a name in a foreign language that included the imperative of the verb ‘to kiss’?

2. In which language does the word ‘dashuri’ mean ‘love’?

3. A Victorian author from London wrote a novel in which an obscure Cumbrian seaside village provided the romantic denouement. Give the name of the author, the novel and the seaside village

4. Which US singer had 2 romantic hits which started with the words ‘Take’ and ‘More’ respectively. (Give away clue. One of his names sounds like a single letter of the alphabet)

5.Why would a stick of celery have romantic associations (keep it clean)?

6. Which author of a famous sex manual filed for divorce claiming that the marriage had never been consummated?

7. Which self-professed anarchist believed that serious lovers should think in culinary gourmet terms?

NB There are only 7 questions as 7 is a more romantic number than 10!

Answers to johnrmurray857@gmail.com

The correct answers and the name of the first person to get all or most answers will be printed on or before Thursday the 21st February. The winner will receive signed copies of 2 of my novels…

NEW AGE OR BUST

I will be busy for the next 2 weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 15th February

NEW AGE OR BUST

I don’t know about you, but I seriously struggle with anything and indeed anyone connected to what might broadly be termed New Age matters. Partly this is because, although the same thing, in another less definitive guise, existed over a hundred years ago, in the form of e.g. Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky, as well as Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy, or the teachings of George Gurdieff, the New Age phenomenon, as the name suggests, is what appears to have come to the fore in the last 30 or 40 years. It thus seems like something that by its own designation, is on the lines of a contemporary fad or passing novelty. A reasonable enough refutation of that, is that at first glance the various beliefs and/or therapies might seem like very disparate, hence unconflatable things: Reiki, Crystals, Aura Therapy, Astrology, Reincarnation, Feng Hsui, I Ching Divination, Meditation, Homeopathy, and you can add a few more yourself ad lib. Some of these practices, of course, in different contexts have a respectable and very ancient pedigree that no one would sensibly scorn. Devout Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others within a disciplined spiritual context, will practice meditation in order to get closer to a hoped-for transcendental fulfilment. Likewise, the discipline of meditation is often linked to the very old Hindu discipline of Yoga as expounded by Patanjali in his Yogasutras (compiled pre 400AD?). Not only does Yoga if practised properly help you to relax, it does powerful things for the heart and other organs, and your circulation, and is also one of the few remedial disciplines that can be done by people with mobility problems and even partial ill health. To that end, and alongside the Chinese discipline of acupuncture, it is often recommended by hard-headed doctors and even surgeons as being both empirically testable and provably beneficial.

It is worth emphasising what isn’t always obvious, that all New Age gnoses concern themselves primarily with that which is therapeutic, in the sense of their adherents, via the guidance of a practitioner or trained expert, will try to make themselves healthier (usually by alleviation of a specific symptom) and/or psychologically happier. In the main, the practitioners do not attempt verifiable or statistical confirmation of what they practice, but instead rely on anecdotal first-person response (I feel a lot better/I feel a bit better/ I don’t feel much better) and the fact their client keeps on coming back and giving their £50 cheque or card payment every visit. The practitioners might reasonably argue that the client keeps coming back, as they feel the benefit of their trained intervention, though it could also be argued they keep on coming back on the placebo model, that in wishful thinking terms they imagine they definitely feel a bit better, when a sugar pill bogus vitamin concoction might achieve the same improvement.

The problem is that any therapy or gnosis that only justifies itself by anecdotal response, is always at best bound to be trapped inside a loop of self-confirming and debatable improvement, or less often an obvious stasis, which might mean abandoning or switching the therapies. I once knew a highly educated middle-class Englishwoman, a gifted artist in her 60s, who had serious and chronic insomnia, despite the fact she had a long dead spiritual guru who she venerated, and also had a strong belief in astrology and Hindu-style reincarnation. Her postcode came within that of Glastonbury, Somerset, which even people who have never heard of Reiki know is the UK New Age capital. Her GP prescribed sleeping tablets for her, but she preferred to dose herself with antihistamines which she reckoned to be more effective and with less side effects. The antihistamines tended to work and knock her out to get a joyous 3 or 4 hours of unbroken sleep, but as she was frightened of becoming addicted to them, she would only take them on alternate nights. The nights she didn’t take them she invariably had no sleep. Her standard conversation then was the ins and outs of her sleeping patterns which she relayed to all her friends as if they were the most important thing in the world, and it never seemed to strike her that they might not be. She was very obviously trapped within a loop which she was unable to visualise from the inside, and she vehemently indeed angrily dismissed as nonsense that her Glastonbury postcode had anything to do with it. All of the ins and outs and nuances of her sleeplessness, were manifestly very significant to her, even though they changed their precise details from day to day, and were impossible to remember a week later. And as I say she was 60 years old, rather than 20 years old…

Now to my own unverifiable therapeutic anecdote, and I will admit right away there might just be a New Age explanation for it and no other. In a nutshell, yesterday I went into a supermarket in the island port, and bought myself a new plastic swing bin for my kitchen, and believe me it has changed my life more radically than any single purchase reasonably should. To clarify, my previous swing bin for kitchen refuse came from the same supermarket, it was the only one they had at the time, and it was one of the ugliest objects conceivable. It was of a standard Greek design, about 3-foot tall, and with a hinged lid and a footpress, but strikingly tubular, meaning it was vaguely reminiscent of a truncated post box that had weirdly got on the loose. What made it a singularly repulsive object was that it had an impressively shit brown lid and a lighter but also remarkably bleak shade of brown for the tubular body. It seemed the kind of thing they might have had in the kitchen of a severely unenlightened possibly punitive mental hospital circa 1952, in some particularly ugly and depressing northern UK town like Widnes or Skelmersdale or Runcorn or Ramsbottom. It cost me an extortionate 15 euros when I purchased it 2 years ago, and Lord knows what sort of affective paralysis took a hold of me that I suffered it for more than a day in my otherwise cheerful kitchen. Perhaps my subconscious and my ego and id and superego were more default Cumbrian curmudgeonly than I thought, and could not bear to waste the 15 euros. To put things in perspective, every time over the last 2 years I looked in that corner where it lived (or better sulked or fumed or glowered or voted for Brexit) I felt my spirits sink, and therefore more often than not I looked away and pretended my ugly kitchen bin did not exist.

Then yesterday, because no doubt at long last my prescient subconscious must have realised the 15 euros outlay had at last thoroughly expended itself, I went out with resolve to the same shop, even though not at all confident they would have a single swing bin, or if they did it would be squamous khaki green like the excrement of a sick budgerigar or a macaque. And yes, right enough, they only had the one bin, which again was hinged and tubular and reached up to the height of my belly button, but lo and behold it was a radiant and glorious white! with rapturous hints of the innocent, the angelic and the kindly, rather than the sullen and diabolic misanthrope who currently squatted in an unyielding pro Brexit sulk in my kitchen. I purchased this beaming white orphan of a bin immediately, for an outlandish 20 euros, but who cared about anything as transient as money as I brought it triumphantly home. Then I picked up my hideous little lodger tenant of 2 years, the glowering dung beetle/ Mistkafer, and took it along to the communal rubbish skip and let it do its joyous sulking there.

So, you ask, what might be the point of this swing bin anecdote of yours, in New Age, or in any other therapeutic terms? The fact is that although on some level I knew if I replaced the ugly bin with one less ugly, I would feel happier in my Kythnos kitchen, I was wholly unprepared for that revolutionary change, whereby the pristine heavenly whiteness of the new arrival would give a complete new dignity to that corner next to my back door. And not just a dignity, but whimsical and arch as it might sound, a measurable and confirmable happiness to that same corner. Previously with its leaden occupant, it had been a palpably unhappy and static little area, whereas now like one of Dickens’s always cheery Yuletide fires, it was suddenly a cheerful and a happy corner. A child would have understood as much, for in their story books, or in those ancient 40s and 50s Disney cartoons, they often see cupboards and furniture with smiling and benevolent faces. And more to the point, in an adult context, very evidently the precise way a person furnishes their rooms, or disposes their books on a shelf, or hangs their pictures on the walls, meaning the incalculable, infinitely minute and nuanced variations of one object set beside another, these are so to speak the cartography and the choreography of the human heart, or if you prefer (and I am not talking New Age now, even if you think I am) of the Eternal Soul. Meaning perhaps, an infinitely skilled practitioner might be able to diagnose a person’s happiness or unhappiness, by a close survey of the precise decoration of their sitting room or kitchen or bedroom, and make convenient suggestions as to how they might change the room, and indeed themselves, for the better.

And where better to start than with the place where, thanks to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, everything goes in the end, the rubbish bin?

THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

I will be busy for a couple of weeks, and the next post will be on or before Friday, February 15th

THE OLD ANARCHIST – a short story

It was in the early summer of 1975 when I was 24 years old, that I found myself suddenly stranded en route from London to my home in the unusual and certainly the only Irish Cumbrian town in existence, known as Cleator Moor. I was still the perpetual student and I actually preferred hitchhiking to orthodox travel, but I had been fool enough to take a lift to the remotest reaches of South Cumbria, which is about as handy for Cleator Moor as Strathpeffer or the Isle of Muck. The consolation was that the littoral landscape in early June was astonishing, a gigantic sandy estuary burnished to purest, wildest gold in the evening sun, reaching up all the way from Barrow in Furness, an ugly and saturnine town if ever there was, to as far as and then beyond Millom, an obscure little community that once had a busy ironworks, but these days has nothing, albeit it can boast of being the home town of the gifted poet Norman Nicholson, who TS Eliot himself once published with Faber and Faber.

I was dropped off at a Millom suburb known as Green Road, full of pristine bungalows and tidy semis, and which happened to have an unmanned railway station, and where a train up to Whitehaven departed in some two and a half hours. From Whitehaven I would either catch the last bus or leg it all the way to Cleator Moor, and then walk uphill in the pitch dark along what had once been an ancient Roman burial route, to the rented room I had in a terraced house out in the open countryside. I could have kept on hitchhiking from Green Road, but there was no traffic worth the name in this quaint and characterless cul de sac, so I decided to sit on the sun-soaked platform and read and wallow in the warmth. The view across to the open sea was infinitely mesmerising, an enormous ocean of molten and purest gold, yet far more valuable than any real gold could ever be. No precious metal would ever look like this tranquil yet surpassingly potent hallucination of an estuary, even if the stark sociology that winged it on either side was impressive in its sheer unflinching crudity. Where it started, Barrow in Furness, was where Vickers shipbuilding constructed nuclear submarines, and where it terminated subtended British Nuclear Fuels, Sellafield, which thanks to its periodic unscheduled leakages of radioactive plutonium 238 was frequently referred to as ‘Land of the Leaks’, a fortuitous parody of an innocuous coffee table book by the local author Melvyn Bragg, entitled Land of the Lakes

Suddenly a busy little man of about sixty, the kind who is always bent at an angle as he is always in such a rush, walked by me and immediately halted to talk. He was short, wiry, had brilliantined hair, an open and friendly face, and was obviously instinctively sympathetic to the young, including the long haired and bearded variety that was mine. Belatedly, I took in that he was wearing a species of uniform that belonged to British Rail.

“The Whitehaven train? Two and a half hours to kill? Would you like a coffee over in my signal box?”

I looked at him gratefully, as I was indeed dying for some coffee, to which I have been long addicted. Though believe it or not, it wouldn’t be the first time I would enter a signal box, as my warm and kindly Uncle Joe had been a signalman all his life, alleviating any incidental boredom with the Light Programme blaring out much of the day on his battered old transistor radio. Crossing the track, the little man asked me where I lived and when I mentioned Cleator Moor his eyes at once lit up. He was a Millom man himself, and was also an accordionist and folk singer, who had often performed up in the West, the Moor included. He was called Ted, and in a couple of minutes Ted wormed out of me that I was a writer, who had had nothing published but was dedicated to the task. I had a wall decorated with countless rejection slips, I wryly informed him, but I would never give up until I had one of my books between covers.

“It’ll happen,” he said wisely, and with total assurance. “It doesn’t happen to everyone but it’ll happen to you…”

His face was too homely for him to be a clairvoyant, or to have any occult or prophetic powers, but the same thing might not be true of the extraordinary person who was sat there motionless inside the signal box. Ted hadn’t told me he had a guest, and at my first glance the strange visitor was rather like a huge and pensive owl or possibly Dodo or even a Great Auk rooted there on an old-fashioned armchair, whose dilating avine eyes were glinting away in the beautifully refracted sunlight…

That hallucinatory vision was what I observed in a rapid instant, but then I noticed that the huge owl was wearing glasses, one of whose lenses were very thick, which owls might well have in children’s books, but not in a signal box in suburban South Cumbria in 1975. In fact, what I was looking at was a very old bespectacled lady, who was present in some kind of rare and rarefied condition, barely corporeal, and more as if she were half way between mortal and immortal. At the sight of me, she suddenly cleared her throat, but it was the gentlest sound imaginable, as if it had been the mildest chirp of a sparrow or a lark…

“My mother,” Ted announced with a nod, and you could discern the pride in his voice, for it was clear she wasn’t just any old South Cumbrian mother, but instead an impressively timeless and ineffable Presence.

The old lady turned to me very slowly. “I’m eighty-nine years old. How do you do?”

After a pause, I said respectfully, “That means you were born in either 1885 or 1886. I was born in 1950 and I’m twenty-four years old . How do you do ?” 

She blinked her old bird’s blink through the very magnified lens, and it looked to me as if she might have cataracts and might even be half blind. Then she said she was called Euphemia, which was an august and impossible name, though she added that everyone always addressed her as Phemie. In the same breath and with a quaint curiosity, she inquired whether I were a married man or just courting. I smiled at her as did Ted, and told her that neither was the case, though it wasn’t for want of looking. Then as if she were my natural and chosen confessor, I said I had broken with my teenage sweetheart Marjorie nearly five years ago, and had pursued an up and down and very unsatisfactory course since…

Euphemia answered calmly, “Aha. I see. Well you might as well listen to me, if you wish. Try being bold is my advice. Boldness is everything. It really is. If you like someone, no matter how shy you feel, you go and walk right up to her, and ask her out, don’t hesitate. If she says no, it might be disappointing, but keep asking other girls you like until eventually one says yes. Sooner or later, one of them is bound to say yes, even if you are a leper, which of course you’re not. That is how things happen, and that is how they work. It’s no use hanging back and making a meal out of everything, is what I’m saying.”

Ted was grinning and shaking his head by her side, and it was obvious that his confidence in my success as a writer, was simply a variation on his mother’s prophetic confidence about my romantic future…

Euphemia then murmured in an ironic tone, “Can you guess how it is I know so much about human nature?”

I looked at her for quite some time. “You might have been a hospital nurse, I suppose. And if that’s the case, you know all about people at their limits of life and death and fear and mortal terror and…”

She snorted. “Like hell. I’d never have put up with wiping all the shit and snot and whatnot, and especially with adults. I had enough of that with all my kids.  I’d had two children by your age, and I was twenty-seven when I had Ted who was the third. My husband Ronnie died when he was thirty-five of what they call haemoconiosis. He worked twenty years in the iron mines at Beckermet, choking and spitting every night with the dust, and there I was a widow with six kids and no means of support. I braced myself and took out the license on a very rough pub called The Castle in a side street in Millom, the only way that I could make an income… and I ran it till 1955 when I was seventy and the brewery pensioned me off. I learnt everything about human nature from the public house, where believe me nothing is a secret, but everything is a secret, as most people never say what they really think. And those secrets are completely unbelievable, but also they are believable, and you could write a book about them…”

What could I possibly say to that? An ancient owl or auk irradiated by pure gold shafts of ancient light was instructing me in the ways of men. And, for that matter, possibly a few brave or reckless women who had nerve enough to drink in that same rough Millom pub between 1920 and 1955.

I asked her, meaning I demanded, “What did you learn?”

 “What exactly did I learn? Oh, I learnt that there are a lot of shivering cowards in this world, especially amongst men. Courage isn’t that hard to come by you know, you just flex your muscles and you do whatever you have to do, whatever that might be. And because of that unusual attitude of mine, I was never out of trouble with the law…”

I looked at her in bafflement, “You mean fights breaking out in the pub…?”

She snorted. “I could quell any riot with a single blink of my eye. This eye here in fact, that has these bloody cataracts on it. The hardest boys from the ironworks would soon shit themselves and start grovelling if I stared them straight in the eye. No, the problem was, I had a lot of trouble with my pub’s closing hours, on account of the fact I didn’t believe in them…”

Ted interrupted, “She never closed the pub is what she means. She would go to bed many a night and tell them to help themselves, and to leave the money in the tea caddy behind the bar. They never cheated her, because if anyone tried to, they would get a hell of a pestling from the rest.”

Euphemia sniffed as she explained, “I was brought up in front of the magistrates more times than I can remember. They always said the same thing. Why do you persist in breaking the licensing laws and staying open half the night? So, I looked at them all quivering away, frightened little bank managers and mousy little shopkeepers, and I said to them, because they happen to have the money, and I happen to have the beer. If they can pay me for the beer, I don’t see why I shouldn’t give them what they want. And they gasped out loud and said, but that is preposterous, that is pure anarchy, you can’t just make up your own laws! I said I can’t see why I can’t make them up, if I’m not actually harming anyone. They glared at me then, and snapped that the men could be at home with their families, instead of frittering money away in my public house. I said sorry, but no, they wouldn’t be at home if they weren’t with me. There are plenty of single men among them, and they would be in one of the bachelor’s houses drinking whisky, not beer, from an off license, and playing cards and losing money all night, and I mean a lot of money, all of their wages many a time. As for me, I exercise control on their behalf in my public house. I don’t let them spend more than a few shillings if they play three card brag in The Castle, and I turf the whole bloody lot out if they try…”

I said to her, “You were obviously providing a public service to half the town.  But magistrates aren’t allowed to think beyond their written guidelines, or beyond their recommended tariffs.  They have to play things by the book, or else. Though I’m still a bit puzzled. I don’t see why you didn’t lose your license …”

The Dodo blinked and just then a gleaming shower of refracted gold from the blazing Duddon Estuary fell upon her cataracts and transformed her for a long moment into a brilliant golden eagle. She laughed or rather she exploded with sarcasm:

“I turned on the womanly tears, of course. I broke down and I wept in the dock! I was a widow with six children, three of them still at school. I had no other means of support, I told them. They sniffed and shuffled and one or two wiped their eyes and cleared their old men’s throats. No amount of my handkerchief-wringing was too much for them. That’s because I worked in a pub for thirty-five years, and I knew all about human nature and especially the nature of men. I knew that even a tight-arsed bank manager turned magistrate couldn’t bear the thought of an old widow becoming penniless just because of him and his heartless judgement…”

I looked at both her and her son, “And it worked every time? Anybody but you would have been frightened that it might not work the next time…”

Euphemia surveyed me in a decidedly magisterial way herself.

“Always be bold and fearless, is my advice. In fact, be good and reckless if you need be. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you have plenty of nerve, and don’t give a damn.  Six kids and no husband can be a good teacher, if you’re only thirty-five years old. You only live the once, you see, though most folk I know decide not to look that in the face. I happen to be near the end of my time, while you’ve just started off on yours, but the same applies to both. You can hide behind your shadow for year after year as the safest bet , and manage to make yourself a kind of life. But guess what happens in the end, if you do?”

I shuffled in my chair. “Death is what happens?”

Euphemia smiled and as the estuary light outside began to glow and burn and cascade through impossible whirls of evanescent cloud, as if indeed this June evening were to be the very beginning of Time, she said to me:

“No. Not death, or at least not real death. What happens if you hide behind your shadow for too long, is that you yourself turn into a shadow. You are not really alive, you’re certainly not dead, but you’ve become exactly like a shadow. And unless a miracle happens, that marks the end for you believe you me…”

A long and heavy silence followed, until Ted, her third child, asked me if I wanted another coffee.

I said to him, “Oh yes. I certainly do.”

And then old half blind Euphemia rose from her armchair and slowly left, and Ted and I started to swap anecdotes about Cleator Moor and everyone we knew there, the wild cards as well as all the rest.

HOW TO FEED STRAY CATS

I will be busy for the next couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Wednesday 23rd January

HOW TO FEED STRAY CATS

It might be thought you need no great prescience nor strategical nous to feed stray cats on a small Greek island, where their numbers are legion and (barring any notional and let’s face it not all that notional Trump-induced apocalypse) I predict they always will be. I suppose it might have been the case if there were more than myself doing the job, so that the pressure of resources versus impatient at times querulous diners/customers had been delegated more equably. Fat chance. In summer when there are foreign tourists on the island, and particularly young Polish women for some reason, they will buy half a dozen tins of cat meat and feed the ones that are hanging around the central cafes to delirious excess.  Athenian tourists and the crowded out locals do not sneer nor try to hinder the kind East Europeans, though their own idea of largesse is to chuck a bit of dry bread to what they usually regard as begging pests, no less than twice a year, whereafter they feel they have done their bit re animal welfare, and some of them would add they deliberately give them no more bread, so that they keep on catching mice and doing what a cat should do by way of respectable Darwinian self-preservation. When I point out that I have seen precisely 1 mouse in 5 and a half years in Kythnos, the same Greeks are smilingly unabashed, and assume that the welcome rodent absence is down to the cats doing their proper Malthusian thing, a kind of inverse syllogistic logic that would defeat the scriptwriters of Monty Python, never mind me.

But down to basics. There are 4 different types of tinned cat food available on Kythnos, and only one is a brand I can confidently work with when it comes to efficient distribution to the strays. It is called Rokus and it flies out of the tin easily and usually does not have excessive gravy (imagine the opposite and a strong Cycladean wind coming off the choppy briny, and me being drenched head to toe in a sort of malodorous Oxo concoction). Having removed the ring pull lid I can simply fling it democratically in a wide arc on the concrete abutting the sea front and well out of the way of any café. It costs 60 cents (57p) and can feed between a dozen and 20 strays with half a dozen meat nuggets each. I am as you probably know a vegetarian, but I can easily forgive the cats their carnivore nature, and give them what they want, on the tried and trusted Levi-Strauss anthropological model of Structuralism that I have faithfully practised since about 1970, viz that you put yourself in the existential shoes of whatever phenomenon you are studying, whether it be the adherents of the Hindu caste system or the Flat Earthers or the dietary preferences of starving cats, and, if you wish to truly understand them, work from that locus rather than imposing what you think might be suitable from an external perspective. So yes 10 out of 10 for Rokus Cat Meat and I buy it in preference to all else, the only problem being only 1 of the 3 supermarkets sells it, and alas they also double as a busy travel agency and occasionally and without warning close the supermarket for anything between 10 minutes and an hour, and with it lock up the fabled Rokus. Cue the clamorous strays wondering what the bally deuce/ what the steaming fuck I am up to. They do not, being innocent animals, understand why I can’t just walk in and get what they and I want…they know nothing about locks, keys, money, swipe cards, penury and/or excess, Early Closing, Bank Holidays, which explains why no matter how many times I walk past them, they always expect yet another meal from me. Irritating as that can be, especially if one is in a hurry or it is pissing down, I sympathise and identify with them entirely, and for obvious reasons. If you or I are hungry we can go and buy a sandwich or a Mars Bar, or we can go home and make ourselves a hearty meal. If the strays are hungry, they can only either beg from me, or they can default to scouring the communal rubbish skips where their noses get filthy. and they regularly get ugly eye infections and occasionally nasty viruses that can make them sneeze so hard and repetitively they eventually haemorrhage, and ultimately they die.

Which of course confirms the myopic circular logic whereby many Greeks dismiss the strays as unhygienic and repulsive, and shoo them away very often with humourless vehemence and stamping of the feet. Ditto when their small kids, impressed by the heartless adult example, are tormenting them and even firing stones at them. Their parents keep on drinking coffee and ignoring those comical and inconsequential antics, they do not shout at them nor threaten to dropkick them to Serifos as I would angrily threaten the little buggers, if they were mine…

APROPOS THE ABOVE, YOUR INTELLIGENT QUESTIONS ANTICIPATED AND ANSWERED…

Why don’t the islanders get their cats spayed, so that the feline population doesn’t get out of hand?

We had syllogisms before, and now we have a solipsism. Very few Greek islanders would ever claim to own a cat, as evidenced by putting collars round their necks, or taking them to a vet when they are sick. Even if they do nominally own one and feed it, they rarely give it a name, whereas in deference to the Brits as seen on corny old films, usually American ones, they duly call their dogs Rex, Prince, Lord and Duke, as in their English versions, and hope that wishful thinking confers some vicarious aristocracy on the beaming hound. By contrast people like myself who have cats as domestic pets have them sterilised by the single island vet at a modest 35 euros per male and 45 per female. One hero I know, an Athenian immigrant who loves this singular island to distraction, has unbelievably gathered up around 30 strays and put them in his garden, and driven the whole bloody lot in sensible batches to the vet to have them sterilised en masse. Otherwise very few Kythniots would claim to own or be responsible for any cat, they are just like communal flowers or sparrows or seabirds, decorative at best on calendars or postcards, but nothing you would wish to exercise a pointless executive authority over, meaning a loving and custodial care.

Notwithstanding, young and idealistic Athens vets regularly volunteer to come across to Kythnos and other islands, and sterilise the cats for free. This is where we enter the mesmerising La La Land of Solipsism. As almost no islander claims to own a cat, and as the cats by bush telegraph somehow get wind of an imminent and nameless and Lord save us irreversible horror, the wily strays immediately vanish off the face of the earth, until these barbaric and uncalled for invaders duly up sticks and piss off back to Athens, whereupon some islanders, noticing the grubby cats’ anomalous absence, sigh and wish that that were a permanent reality. The weary and usually underpaid young vets eventually throw up their hands in honest bafflement and depart … perhaps even a mite depressed as their youthful unselfish charity has been so crudely spurned.

Why not feed the strays with dried cat food as it would work out cheaper for you, and probably cause them less teeth decay?

This is a sensible question, but it is obviously posed by someone who knows nothing of the discriminatory sophistication of cats, stray or otherwise. The strays might be homeless, ownerless, penniless and vulnerable to disabling disease, but they still have their curious gourmet dignity, their exacting if homespun standards, and they always prefer wet cat food to dried stuff and certainly know the difference. Some of them simply turn away from the latter and wait for the boring joke to finish, and the delicious Rokus to be brought round from behind my back. There is also a strategic and health and safety issue here, by which for once I mean my own health and safety not the hungry strays’, bless them. To give them dried food, I would have to stoop and drop it from a modest height, for if strewn from any elevation, it would end up flying pointlessly everywhere, meaning some of the cavalier buggers (and remember there may be up to 20 of them) would try to help me with the disbursement, courtesy of their very sharp claws. It can be painful, bloody and distressing to be mauled by someone you are trying to help, and then you need to bugger off home and whisk out the Betadine and let out your anger at their all too innocent mistake by plentiful West Cumbrian multi-element cusswords (effing, seeing, ballocking, seesucking bloody little twats of cats etc)…

OK, OK, but wait a minute…

You too perhaps, dear cosmopolitan animal lover, need to wait a minute. I know a stray cat I call Marjorie who will only eat sliced ham and absolutely nothing else. She passes up Rokus as if she were a victim of terminal fin de siècle ennui, like say a female feline version of Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Apollinaire. Show her dried food and she would probably ask you to pass the nearest opium pipe (plus a copy of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy) qua de Quincey or qua, as we learn to our surprise, Graham Greene…

What I am getting at, is that even the lowest of the low, numberless Cycladean stray cats, most of them with dirty noses, some of them with filthy fur or running eyes, animals that no one owns nor cares about, nor apart from me ever gives a name to, nor is charmed by their colour nor their cry nor their quaintness, that can live or die and probably only I would notice if they vanished one day off the Cycladean earth…that even they, the very lowest of the low, have their inalienable standards…

This is an exemplary and instructive moral lesson, which I believe if studied properly and with due recognition of its parable-style paradoxes, could well lead to a new belief in meaningful truly ethical religion, who knows? And then, once people had decided to be kind and good as a general principle, to all and sundry, friend and foe alike, including these vagabond and therefore subversive animal strays, they would surely start for a change to look after their bloody old cats…in the same way they as a rule look after and cherish their own kids, and come to that more often than not, their wives and husbands…