CHITTER AND TASSY
Do you smoke cigarettes? If I’d asked you this in the UK 40 or 50 years ago, you’d probably have said yes, yes of course I do, and have thought it an absurd and redundant question. Here on Kythnos everyone smokes a great many cigarettes, and really it wouldn’t unnerve me if I saw a Cycladean dog or a stray Kythnos cat airily enjoying a handrolled tab (Geordie word), or a well earned, and appropriate to animals, proprietary brand snout. Unlike in the UK, where smokers these days look all too furtive and abashed, Greek smokers swagger and flaunt their toxic if charismatic wares. A favourite pose for both genders, is to be getting into your car with two bottles of drink and a loaf of bread the size of a small dog, with the fag majestically in your puckering gob, as you have no spare hand to hold it. It takes me back some 50 years, to the time when workmen in your house always had a fag sat like a tiny poodle on their left ear, and a pencil stub on their right. I wonder if they ever ignited the pencil by mistake, or tried to take down some vital dimensions using a snout, and thereby crushing and destroying it and cussing their head off as a result.
A cross-wired experience like that almost happened to me once. It was the summer of 1986, I was living with my wife Annie in Cleator Moor, West Cumbria, and editing a lively fiction magazine called Panurge. One day I needed to do two very urgent things: have a swift piss, and get some coal for the fire. I conscientiously got the coal first from outside, and then unable to wait any longer, went into the bathroom to let fly. To my horror and consternation, I only just stopped myself flinging the hundredweight of coal down the toilet, which by false analogy looked of about the same epistemological category as an open coal fire. Had I done so, it would have needed quite some garish hand-poking hydraulics and taxing plumbing skills that I, guess what, did not at all possess. Those were the days…
60 or so years ago, if a woman especially was suffering from her nerves, a GP might well have suggested she take up smoking, to help her to relax. These were the golden days of uninhibited fag smoking, when many people chose Craven A (I like the first word, do you, as in craven liar) because of its unique cork tip, the sunny notion being that it offered a kind of filtering process that not only protected you from dangerous tars and chemicals, but was actually positively beneficial. A packet of Craven A was effectively a month’s supply of vitamins, or a stone of bolstering eating apples, or a gallon of sustaining tonic as in Buckfast Tonic Wine.
I had a chubby boyhood friend whose real name was Cyril, but whose apposite nickname was Tits, and he made interesting obscene puns about Buckfast. Given that it is the name of a pious abbey, where the monks supplement their income by making the alcoholic wine, it was just a little on the disrespectful side. His notion was that consumption of the wine induced super-speed copulation, though I don’t think he ever used or understood that last word till he was about 58. Tits also had his own unique vocabulary, which remarkably I still use myself, and even more remarkable, Ione, who sometimes adopts my favourite colloquial expressions, also uses some of these words.
‘Chitter’ meaning good. ‘Tassy’ meaning good. The first Hindi-style epithet sounds like it might have come from the British Indian army, as in the not unracist TV comedy, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. ‘Tassy’ sounds like it might be a corruption of the French. I still use those words when I am talking to Ione, and I have been using them regularly since about 1960.Tits also had first rate metaphors for contempt, so that if he didn’t like somebody, and there were a lot of people Tits did not like, he would say, ‘I’ve shit better’. What a wonderfully vicious, vitriolic insult and of such exemplary economy. It is on the lines of ‘You are a waste of bloody space’ but with so much more truculent and 100% confident venom. He also addressed his frequent farts, and chastised them (visually a very interesting idea) with the words, ‘Get out, you bugger, and walk!’ the idea being they were immoral and parasitic creatures who lazed inside of him and should be walking on their own two or possibly four vaporous legs.
Cultural differences can be profound. There is the intriguing sight in many a Kythnos cafe of a very rugged and hardened male who might have been fishing in all confounding weathers for forty odd years, now looking most oddly like a Noel Coward hand-fluttering vamp of dubious gender. It takes you aback is all I can say, and it is bloody hard to stifle your response at times. It is all down to the fags again (no pun intended if you are an American reader). Being aware that a filtering tip of some sort is better than the spendid old days when, in the UK context, High Tar fags like Capstan Full Strength and Gold Flake were what a real man might consent to puff at, their Greek counterparts have decided to embrace the bloody old cigarette holder. In case you cannot picture it, it is a long thin cylindrical black tube, rather like a stick of smooth liquorice with its inside bored through. The only thing missing from these stony malaka-cussing XYY guys, as they flaunt their fag holders and waggle their hands like music hall queens, is the twin set and pearls. I keep waiting for them to wiggle the fag holder in my direction, and in an attempt to furnish me with a bit of makeshift English, cry out like a Cycladean Dick Emery, on a bad day, ‘Come on now, my darlings. Chase me, girls!’
A greater irony is the way that two local health professionals, buddies of mine, who both chainsmoke and beb tsipuro brandy like there is no tomorrow, cannot restrain themselves from giving me very helpful well-being tips. I neither smoke nor consume tsipuro, which despite the fervent encomia of many a Greek, tastes to me like petrol, and not the unleaded variety either. Many is the time I have had an off-duty Cycladean nurse or doctor pal, cheerily blowing smoke in my face and exhaling tsipuro fumes at my blinking pupils. Pause and a puff, and an exhale and a swig, and then, ‘You really should take vitamin supplements, seriously. Also wrap up against the sun and use plenty of cream.’
Oh yeah, I say to myself, wouldn’t that be several varieties of carcinogenic tar wafting their euphoric way down to your health professional’s lungs, via your throat, palate, nose, lips and everywhere else? Isn’t it true that there is absolutely no organ or appurtenance of the body that cannot turn cancerous, including and this is a proven fact, the imagination? Ah malaka, they joust at me affectionately, ah my English malaka friend, you fucking malaka Catman malaka! You will notice, by the way, I have stopped italicising that all purpose punctuation mark masquerading as a proper Greek word, and will continue to do so from now on.
All over Albania where Ione and I visited in 2013, the cafes have prominent big signs saying Ndalohet piye duhani which means, Smoking Forbidden. My daughter smoked copiously in those days, but thankfully no longer does. When she was polite enough one night to walk outside a Durres bar to light up, the kindly Shiptars looked on in baffled horror, and insisted she stay inside to enjoy her fag in foggy comfort along with them. By analogy, the Kythnos Health Centre in Loutra, has a conspicuous No Smoking sign too. You wouldn’t need to put that up in Cumbrian medical surgery of course, but here there are several reasons why you should, or maybe why it is so to speak flogging a dead allogos or more likely gaidharo. A year ago I went there with a very sore throat, and behold the very morose and elderly Rumanian doctor on duty was puffing away languidly at a fag, while stood exactly underneath the prohibitory sign. He took me into the examination room still puffing away, asked me to open my mouth, poked in an ice lolly stick, and narrowly avoided dropping cigarette ash into my open gaping English maw.
“Drink some tea, “ is what he croaked by way of reasoned Rumanian therapeutics. Then without another word and still sucking leisurely at his twenty seventh Marlboro of the day, he walked off as morose as a Bucharest undertaker.