THE LAST TWO ON EARTH

THE LAST TWO ON EARTH

I have seen some exceedingly strange things in my 64 years, but few as unlikely and unheralded as what happened yesterday…

My guest A. and I were at Livadhakia, one of the remotest and loneliest bays on Kythnos, on a  warm but windy January day. Livadhakia, way up north, is below Loutra and Agia Irini, the latter a tiny perfect jewel of a bay, with a fish taverna so exquisite, sometimes Greek celebrities decide to marry in the tiny church adjacent, and hold their lavish not to say televised wedding breakfasts at the beautiful Arias Yeusis. Agia Irini has for long had a good if narrow asphalt road, but Livadhakia hasn’t even a dirt road, nor even a monopati footpath. Of course it must have a monopati of some kind, or how else could its only inhabitants, a couple of elderly goat farmers, Manolis and Sotiria, get down there from the Hora capital with their shopping? The answer is that when gentle Manolis was younger, he would do almost everything by rowing boat, and nearly all his shopping at Loutra. He sold goat cheeses by the cart load, and until last year when he was 84, he could be seen most days in a little boat laden with sacks of feta, skiffing his careful way towards the venerable spa village and honorary capital of the far north of Cycladean Kythnos.

Sotiria is one of the shyest women in the world. She is 74, hence eleven years his junior. She is thin but rugged, and invariably wears one of Manolis’s cast off caps, always the same one which is a dull green. She does all the goat herding, as Manolis is now very weak on his legs. The goat herding and less frequent milking, probably happen four or five times a day, but seem continual, a kind of conveyor belt husbandry, as she moves the herd from field to field, accompanied by an entirely ornamental Alsatian ‘goat-dog’. The dog looks terrifying, but is as daft as a brush, an absolute gannet when it comes to begging food, and prone to take adoring flying leaps at you by way of sending you flying arse up. They have about fifteen cats of all sizes and ages, which cluster outside their compact green and white smallholding. The cats have a special bucolic mellowness, a tender furry appearance, which is a function of being safe, well-fed, even loved after  a grudging Greek fashion, and left to their own devices when it comes to where they sit or squat or run or snooze. Some have narrow and delicate Sino-Tibetan eyes, and you expect them to murmur to you in sibilant Chinese, should they ever deign to go beyond yawning and luxuriating, in their idle stretching and lunatic racing and demented tumble play with their silky companions.

The farm is rickety and handsome at the same time. The Livadhakia couple have three strapping sons in their fifties, all from the port, who get here by motorboat and do renovation and repair jobs from time to time. The house has an inside toilet and a shower and every other convenience, TV included, which made it all the more surprising when A. and I suddenly spotted Manolis in a familiar crouching position, about  200 yards from the deserted beach where we were picnicking on spanakopitta and sipping Cretan wine.

His dusty grey cap was visible as he bent down not very discreetly with one of the cats attending his master’s private, so to speak, ‘doings’.

I said to A., “Look at old Manolis. He’s taking a bloody crap behind that bush.”

My guest nodded judicially. A. is neither Greek nor English and lives a very long way from Kythnos. She murmured, “Very good. Yes. It is very healthy. In fact, Kyrio John,  it is impressively poetic.”

I swigged the Cretan wine. We had forgotten to bring plastic cups, so had to quaff alternately from the bottle. Most of us can probably confirm it always tastes far better that way.

I handed her the bottle and asked, “ Shitting in the open air is impressively poetic? Mm. But they have a nice modern flush toilet over there in the farmhouse. Mano is 85 and very arthritic, but he’s stooped down there to crap, as if he’s as lithe as a fifty year-old. I think I see a worrying dynamical problem connected to force vectors, rotational torques and so on. Once he’s finished his al fresco log-laying, he needs to get upright, and with his severe arthritis, he will need to find some support. The ear of that little cat that is chaperoning him, will not suffice, will it A.?”

She chuckled and asked what I meant by ‘log-laying’ and I quoted my source, a joiner friend from Bermondsey relocated to Cumbria, who never used any other term for defecating. The same man had his own special vocabulary which included ‘king’ for ‘good’, ‘jowl’ for ‘bad’, ‘a jowling bowler’ for ‘someone who is a notable pain in the arse’…and ‘bail’ and ‘bailed out’, for, you’ve guessed it, ‘hashish’ and ‘stoned’.

After a couple of hours sunbathing, we walked the four kilometres back up to the Hora by the endless tangled scrub. The Greek word for sunbathing is iliotherapeia, which is a very wise use of allusive language, and altogether more poetic than Manolis’s ad hoc fertiliser treatment of his remote estate. We were stout walkers who were both clad in shorts, and our ankles and lower legs were soon scratched and bloody. In vain, we looked for any sudden excrescence of a helpful monopati, but there was nothing other than meandering goat tracks, all of them absolutely useless, going-nowhere tracks at that. Tell me, I ask you as sincere writer to sincere reader, would you follow the ambulatory instinct of a goat, much less a kid, if you wanted to make any cogent progress in any possible endeavour of life? The only occasion you might, is if like Sotiria, you were a Kythniot goatherdess. And believe me, there is such a word, I am not making it up. In this connection, vide also the gopis who dance round the Hindu deity Krishna, those who, as in the Gitagovinda, are usually translated as ‘cowherdesses’.

But of lanky, moustachioed flat-capped Sotiria and the mysterious instincts of her goats, we will say something altogether profound before very long.

As for the thorns and the scratched and bleeding legs, we genuinely couldn’t give a damn. It was as if life in every aspect, was suddenly copiously rich and tenderly raw, in all its remotest island reaches. As in a novel or story by Jean Giono or Giovanni Verga or Panos Karnezis or Vangelis Xatziyannidis, you felt the true tang and savour of this gift called life, as if you had been fiercely  touched to the quick, by the scent and timbre and rhythm of all that this single and ineffable existence on earth can possibly offer us.

I doubt whether Sotiria or even gentle and pacific Manolis ever saw it that way. As if to confirm it, suddenly there was a hell of a shriek behind us, and we turned to observe Sotiria pacing both sides of the valley as she ascended and descended the barren but sun-graced hills through we had just made our bloody defile. She was a long way off, so I could make no sense of her Greek, which echoed the length of the valley in a confusing stereophony. I didn’t know the words, but right enough I could easily construe the obvious sense. This might have been the remote Cyclades in January 2015, but just as easily it could have been the pages of Homer, assuming Sotiria had been ready to renounce her second hand flat cap which looked no more than a meagre forty or fifty years old.

Sotiria was reading the riot act to a devious and antisocial goat, let us call him for convenience sake Stamatis. She was pacing angrily, indeed terrifyingly towards him, yet with Karl the Alsatian in cheery attendance. Sotiria sounded close to a nervous breakdown because of errant, straying Stamatis, but Karl was, to adopt a vivid West Cumbrianism, ‘grinning like a bag of chips’. The sum of Sotiria’s imprecations, as she by turns cursed and beseeched  Stami for his inexcusable conduct, was that he had been granted prefect status as head of his little sub-herd. This post of great dignity and distinction had been endowed by Sotiria herself, on the candid understanding that Stamatis would lead the nannys and kids where they were supposed to go. Not, Sotiria, rantingly qualified in an ascending and vertiginous rage, not so that the malaka, the egregious wanker Kyrio Malaka Malaka Malaka Stamatis!, should turn anarchist and decide to fuck off (the very words she used) up the other side of the hill and desert his charges. It would appear that my fine gentleman Stami was seeking a little heritable portion of the choicest eesikhia, meaning that ineffable and transcendent rustic peacefulness, especially as found on the islands.

Even Stami, though not beaming Karl, could see that eesikhia was not what the herd prefect was going be basking in now. Instead, Sotiria grabbed him by the horns and started to beat him very hard on the flank with her large and heavy hand. As she beat Stamatis, she gave forth a truly Homeric and very harrowing lament. What she said precisely I could not make out, but any fool could hear the sob of grief in her voice, the sense of  absolute betrayal, the edge of panicking hysteria, the sheer rawness of her sense of caprine and no doubt allied human perfidity.

My guest and I both asked ourselves the same question. This hymn of grief to the goat Stamatis, was it just about a betrayed woman and a wicked goat, and the anarchic volta on the latter’s part that had cost her perhaps ten minutes rather than the ten years’ suffering she seemed to be descanting about? Instead, it sounded in its hoarse desolation, like every accumulated sorrow in her life, from the famine privations in infancy of the Nazi-occupied Forties, all through the desolate years of her comically inadequate and highly miscellaneous Hora schooling (Sotiria knew the names of three Ottoman sultans who had reigned during the Turkish occupation, but she didn’t know what an equation was or where Thessalonika was to be found on the map). Then followed the early marriage, the difficult pregnancies, the two miscarriages, the two stillbirths, and latterly, fast forward half a century, and the fact that in 2015 her beloved husband was closer to 90 than she was to 80. Manolis could hardly bend or stoop or stand, and his chest was very bad. He might drop down dead at any minute and then where would she be?

Answer rebounded along the deserted hills that shielded the loneliest if sun-drenched bay on the loneliest if most hallowed and authentic of Greek islands.

She would be in bloody Livadhakia. No tarmacked road. No dirt road. No monopati, but only hard scrub that rips your legs to a patterned spider’s web. Electricity only since 2002, and they had had to pay a fortune and several backhanders to get it brought down here. An extortionate phone landline, because of course kinito cellphones did not work down here. There was, she had dimly heard, something called the internet connected with kafeneion idiots playing with their kinitos 24/7, one of her beefy sons included, but why should the goatherdess Sotiria give a damn about that? There was more chance of Stamatis the unloving and inconsiderate goat, or Karl the canine ever-optimist, going online, than of Sotiria ever clicking a bloody mouse or surfing a blasted web.

“Isn’t that true? “she bawled at Stami, with one long last buffet on his uncomplaining flank. He hadn’t made a squeak so far, and I doubted that he was any kind of hero, mythological or otherwise. It could only be that his hide was so hard he could not really feel it. For that she would have needed a stick, and there wasn’t one handy, alas. Karl meanwhile looked on seraphically as he if he had a mobile phone of his own stashed away somewhere, and could order e-baskets of tasty snacks any time that he wanted to.

“Isn’t that true” Sotiria repeated wildly, and that edge of raw grief in her voice could not be destroyed or discounted, not even by the dizzying valley echo nor the language gap that included the dialect and the phonetic distortions. A. herself remarked on it. Grief. The one thing we all claim to know how to handle.

And yet…

YOUR SPECS HAVE A FUNNY SMELL

YOUR SPECS HAVE A FUNNY SMELL

Here are some more Greek words that are easily confused, and can even cause a little swingeing embarrassment…

‘Embarrassment’ by the way is a very potent fictional motif, that most UK writers simply do not make enough of. For the real thing as evoked to the nth, take a look at A Nasty Story by Fyodor Dostoievsky).

1.‘Giagia’ and ‘gialgia’ = ‘grandmother’ and ‘glasses/spectacles’

Possible Howlers

a) Let’s have a look at her. Yes, sure enough your grandmother is filthy and an absolute disgrace. Spit all over her and rub her as hard as you can, and you might make some impression, but you’ll have to put your back into it. Otherwise you will never see further than the end of your nose. Also if I’m being totally candid, she’s altered your appearance, she makes you look all nose,  and her arms are pulling way too tight around your head and your ears. You’re always losing her too, aren’t you. Never thought of attaching her to one of those unbreakable  string things, so you never mislay her. Save you money in useless grandmas wouldn’t it, assuming you ever dropped her from a height and smashed her to smithereens. Once they’re in pieces and  knackered, there’s nothing for it but to get yourself a new grandma, no choice there. Of course some places nowadays, you can get a new one while you wait…

b) Your specs have a funny smell about them…I wonder do you maybe need to get some help in to look after them when, you know…they are getting on, your specs, 95 years old, aren’t they? But hell they’ve lasted well, and seen some dramatic sights eh?  They were only 25 years old when the War finished, and they’d seen a bit of German shrapnel embed itself in the vicar’s prize marrows and all his asparagus  more or less incinerated. Still, your specs were always cheerful  in any adversity, and often helped other specs to see the brighter side of life. Of course, life was hard in those days before the War, and likewise your specs heard from her own specs that back in mid-Victorian times a pair of specs would often end up in the Workhouse, a terrible fate if your glasses were separated from her husband, because they didn’t believe in putting the two sexes together.

 2.manteka’ and ‘mantalaki’ = ‘wax for a moustache’ and ‘clothes peg’

Possible Howlers

a)I took the clothes peg and touched the edges of my moustache with it and you never knew such a delicious sensation! Once I had finished rubbing my tash with the peg, I’m telling you Manolis,  it stood as stiff as a you know what…am I talking about cucumbers or the old fishing tackle when  its spots a juicy female minus the old underwear eh? Phaw! Paw! Anyway I took a look in the mirror and there was the old handlebar as curved yet rock hard, as a man who is thinking of the Friday night leg over with the old wife. And it’s the bloody old  peg I have to thank for it…let no one think of it as old fashioned or whimsical,  pegs are what make a man a real man assuming, he is man enough to have a moustache in the first place. In the old days of course a man without moustache was regarded as an offence to both manhood and womanhood. Here, do you want to try this peg on your own pallikari handlebar, and see if it stops it drooping, Manolis, hah!

b) The wife had done a ton of laundry in the washing machine, but then she got a phone call and had to rush out to her mother’s. So, Kostas, I was ordered to hang the washing on the line while she was out, or else I’d face the marital music. My wife as you know is on the big, by which I mean massive side, and I wouldn’t have minded so much, but most of it was her damn XXL frillies and undies. All it needed was for the young slob of a neighbour to see me handling her cow-size panties and bras, and the grinning and gossip would have killed me. Anyway I picked up a bright crimson bra that would have wrapped round your own skinny wife twice, and pinned it tight with my moustache wax as far away from the bloody neighbour as I could. Then her snake patterned gold and silver panties as big as the sails of an old felouka , I wedged the thing just where the old gal’s backside splits, with the first tash  wax I picked up and then thought no,  safety first, and clipped it with four of my  moustache waxes. The moustache wax, mind you,  wasn’t the old design we knew as boys, divided down the middle and all durable wood. No it was sold pink plastic  and with a metal spring supposedly  to help it do the job, but in fact these tash waxes are always shattering and flying half the way to bloody Thessalonika. I ask you…

On a banal note and thinking of the other way round, Kythniot Greeks who speak English, even ones who are very bright and fluent, will confuse the pronouns and say ‘he’ when they mean ‘she’ and vice versa. I’m not talking about inanimate objects with either male or female gender, but of their referring to a ‘daughter’ as ‘he’ or a ‘husband’ as ‘she’. I wonder what this signifies. To be honest I have no idea?

Anyway, any of you who did O level German at school, will know that the world for ‘girl’ is ‘das Madchen’ which is neuter, and therefore the proper pronoun when referring to a girl is ‘es’, meaning ‘it’.

At least the Greeks never stooped so low…

PARADISOS AND THE MASSACRE OF 1916

PARADISOS AND THE MASSACRE OF 1916

Unspoilt as applied to Cycladean Kythnos, for once is very accurate. Despite being close to the mainland, it gets few tourists, most of them Athenian weekenders, plus copious yet thankfully come-and-go yachties, principally from Scandinavia and Germany. The only time you fight for space on a sandy shore is in August, and the last two weeks of July in watering-holes like Episkopi and Loutra. In high season, you definitely avoid Episkopi, half an hour’s walk from the port, with its noisy bar and its wall to wall sun-loungers. But many of the finest sandy beaches are deserted all the year round, and like anyone with any sense, it is those I love the most. My favourite of all my many favourites is:

Gaidharomandra

This massive exquisitely sandy bay is in the south of the island, and adjacent to quirkily named Simousi, a nonsense word the equivalent of Thingumajig Beach. Gaidharomandra means ‘Donkey Fold/ Enclosure’, but there are no longer any donkeys there,  even though plentiful ruins of animal enclosures. There is also a lovely little chapel, Ag Sotiras, which has a crowded panagia festival every year. The chapel marks the end of the navigable road, and only 4-wheel drives, farmer’s pick-ups and motorbikes proceed any further. Taxis refuse to continue downhill the one kilometre of dirt road, though at the end of it is a cheerful dilapidated sign saying ‘Parking’. What they mean is, here is a bit of nondescript dirt road just like the rest of the scratty little dirt road, but we have decided in our civic wisdom to call it Parking, though we know damn fine you will park anywhere you bloody well like in God forsaken Donkey Fold…

Donkey Fold has half a dozen smallholdings and holiday homes, but I have been there May, June, September and October, and never seen a soul. I have taken three visitors from the UK, and they have all been eloquently enchanted, not least because it was roasting hot in all cases. In June there were myriad enormous crickets leaping at every turn, a hallucinatory light show of a kind as they made a queer skrarking sound as they leapt. The last time I was there was October 2014, when we were visited by a sad and starving cat, who must presumably have been left by cold-hearted August weekenders, to fend for itself or die. Luckily we had plentiful tzatziki and aubergine salad, both surprisingly good seeing they were proprietary brand convenience food. The cat thought they were surprisingly good too, but refused to come anywhere near us. I had to put its tasty picnic on the stone terrace of the abandoned, forlorn and tumbling villa which is only  a footstep up from the sand.

Zogaki

Zogaki was the most sympathetic and beautiful beach we discovered on Kythnos, back in June 2007, when Annie and I first came here. We walked it from the old hilltop capital Dryopida, an hour’s mesmerising ramble as you see all the glittering littoral glories of Lefkes, Kaka Maria (Naughty or even Bloody Mary), Liotrivi (Oil Press) and those other tender and misty mirages way down below. We walked it all back uphill as well, and that was a sweating slog in boiling heat, but en route we had a phone call from Ione who was dating unhappily in Zakynthos, and that made our day (when she got back to Cumbria she immediately gave his lordship the boot, and still in Kythnos we got out the fireworks and champagne and breathed easy again).

Zogaki is the most Hebridean of the island’s bays, by which I mean it feels like a child’s vision of perfect seaside joys, with its small comfortingly enclosed bay, its flaking little shacks and tattered smallholdings. But the sociological and historical reality were once very different. There are, as in Lefkes, Ag Stefanos, Skhinousa and Kalo Livadhi, old abandoned jetties, and other quaint industrial remnants, from a massive German-managed iron-quarrying concern that flourished, if that is the questionable term, in the early 20th century. The same holds true for the adjacent island Serifos, where in 1916 the local workers went on strike in protest at truly appalling work conditions. Police from nearby Kea were called in by the German manager, four of the strikers were gunned down in cold blood, and a dozen seriously wounded. Almost a century later, above Zogaki, the massive processing plant sits in rather handsome mellowing ruins. I had no idea what these ruins represented  in 2007, and bizarrely I had to ask about ten people in the port before someone was able to identify them. The other nine I interrogated were even puzzled that I was interested, and when I told them of the Serifos atrocity, a few of them admitted it was news to them, and shrugged their shoulders as if it had nothing to do with peaceable and predictable old Kythnos.

Adjacent to Zogaki, a ten minute walk round the headland, is pristine and paradisaical  little Kouri, with its seasonal taverna and its two crazy dogs. The bay is more of an open affair than Zogaki , though still tiny  and with a magnetic view of glistening Serifos and its uninhabited satellites Piperi (Pepper) and Serifopoula, which hearteningly always remind me of the tantalising and uninhabited Treshnish Isles off Mull. Beyond Kouri is Naoussa Bay where there is a little tidal islet with a snow white chapel perched like an elegant curious jewel upon it. Like the Hebrides and its sister bay Zogaki, it has that special melting poetry one associates with infancy and the tender euphoria of that lost and magical estate.

TO BE CONTINUED

ONE HELL OF A YOGHURT

ONE HELL OF A YOGHURT

No one enjoys a bit of hideous intersocial embarrassment more than me, and here are some pairs of very common, not obscure Greek words, that are easily confusable. I have confused them myself, much to the general amusement of Kythniots and other Greeks from 30 or even 40 years ago. Once, when my wife Annie and I were in a taverna in 1982 in wonderful Chios, disdaining the English version menu, instead of a ‘country salad’ I asked for a ‘nightwatchman’s salad’. The fiftyish and balding waiter who had looked depthlessly morose and very preoccupied before he took  my order, split his sides with merriment and went off to tell everyone he knew about my idiotic request. Later he asked me what I thought a bloody old Greek nightwatchman would like in his salad, and I said plenty of kautos (incendiary, cockle-warming) tsipuro, grape brandy in the dressing… and give the Chiot servitoros his due, he grinned his arse off at that as well.

1.Ntomata and domatia ( ‘a tomato’ and ‘a room’)

(NB,  the first is pronounced ‘domata’ and the second ‘thomatia’ where the ‘th’ is pronounced as in ‘there’).

Possible howlers

a) Give me a nice cheap one with a toilet that doesn’t stink, and a shower that isn’t blocked with body hair. I can tell you now, I don’t want  a tomato without a television, and I don’t want a boiling hot bloody tomato either, even if it is August. Nor do I want a dark tomato or a poky tomato or a noisy bloody tomato or a non-smoker’s tomato! I don’t want any drunken bloody Albanians singing next to my bloody tomato, d’you hear?

b)This outsize room here is frankly past it and turning putrid. If it was in good condition it would suit someone living on their own, and I could fill it to bursting with rice, or even rice and beef, but no bloody chance the way it is! Look, it’s swollen and split and mouldy and it’s even  cracking down the middle and oozing what looks like piss…

2.Pisina and pisinos (‘a swimming pool’ and ‘a backside’)

Possible howlers

a)Your backside is truly enormous, love,  but tell me do you ever get it looking unbelievably horrible all over its surface, with slimy green algae ? Common as anything these days, eh, some kind of modern biological plague? So how do you get rid of all the ugly scum off your backside, I’d love to know? I always think the ideal backside is one that is pure and clean and that you can see right to the bottom of. I guess you need to get those guys out to drain and clean and blow boiling hot steam into your backside now and again, do you?

b) I have an embarrassing condition with my swimming pool. It has pustules up the you know where, the thingy passage, and now and again they start to bloody suppurate. I mean it doesn’t do wonders for your love life when you have an oozing, bloody swimming pool that your husband wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Mind you he’s a first class bastard, he really is, irrespective of my poor old swimming pool

3.Eorti and giaourti   (‘celebratory party’ and ‘yoghurt’)

Possible howlers

a)Let’s share a bloody big, truly monstrous yoghurt together, you and me, shall we, and show the world what we’re made of! Spread the word and we’ll get half the village and they can tell the whole of the valley about our no expense spared blow-out yoghurt. It’ll be a sell out, make  no mistake. and if the whole village isn’t laid up puking all tomorrow after a riotous night of crazy bloody yoghurting, my name isn’t Kostas Filippaous…

b)This so called party is kind of boring and tasteless, and needs a bomb in the form of a bloody big dollop of honey thrown everywhere, just so I feel some inclination to get stuck in to it. By the way, I don’t know whether it’s a sheep’s party or a goat’s party or a cow’s party, all I know is it’s got no bloody oomph to it!

Enough for now, and possibly more in the future. But how often do I, permanent albeit British Kythnos citizen, get these kind of things confused? Nowadays after 18 months on Kythnos and regular Greek lessons, I mostly know which word means which, but occasionally fatigue or too much ouzo me pago make me a bit stupid. Only yesterday, I confused kouverta (blanket) and kouventa (conversation) and said at full volume in the Glaros, I’d had a really interesting blanket with the good-looking woman on the other side of the bay who is a maritime lawyer. You should have heard all the wahooing and guffaws. It sounded faintly Carry On saucy of course, but then she lawyer Margarita is happily married, and I now have someone I really care about and am 1000% faithful to, without the slightest effort…

 

 

SO ARE THERE ANY HAZARDS IN PARADISE?

SO ARE THERE ANY HAZARDS IN PARADISE?

1.Curmudgeonly Lemons

Of overwhelming interest to keen amateur cooks like myself. Why, given that Greece is the world capital of the mother of all fruits,  the lemon, is it that most Greek lemons yield such a pitiful amount of juice? Bugger me, they have juicier lemons in Uttoxeter and Penrhyndeuddraeth and Auchtermuchty, and I for one as a paid up Hellenophile, am not pleased to acknowledge that rebarbative truth. As a result, I am reduced to putting the pith as well as the juice in my dressings and flavourings. If this goes on I will be putting the bloody rind in as well, and maybe even the plastic lemon squeezer itself by way of ironic commentary.

But why stop there, for I myself, the agent squeezer, will inevitably decide to go the whole hog and make my dressing in a handy discarded retsina barrel, and climb into the fucking dressing jar to give it added piquancy…

While we’re at it, Greek lemon squeezers do not have a receptacle base, like they do in the UK. What that means is, if you are cooking six things at once, as I usually am for my dinner parties, I have to fret and find an empty small pan or bowl to accommodate the scanty juice.  It would take the bone-idle squeezer designers minimal effort and expense, to make a pretty all-in-one beauty, but will the lazy overpaid bastards do so for the likes of me? It is just one of those things about the darling Greeks that drive you, what’s the word, mad?

As with that ubiquitous phenomenon of delinquent teenage daughters, and pace the great autodidact Alan Dent of Penniless Press, Preston, UK: They (a great many 15 year-old girls, virtually the whole of the fractious nation of Greece) drive you mad, but they keep you sane…

2.Summer Bedtimes That Really Hurt

In 2003 Annie, Ione and I stayed in some palatial rooms in the Hora capital of beautiful Tinos. They were called  Luigi’s Domatia and were sybarite sumptuous to say the least. Beautifully furnished and tended lovingly by three very kind, conscientious Bulgarian sisters in their thirties, we couldn’t possibly have afforded them in high season. Luigi on the phone from Athens let us have them in May at a philanthropic 20 euros each, one room for Annie and me, and an adjacent one for Ione. Recall that in 2003, the exchange rate was so much in sterling’s favour, that it amounted to a measly £13 per room per night.

Can you believe that every time the Bulgarian ladies made the beds, they put an expensive flavoured chocolate on the beautifully embroidered pillows? Ione, aged 13, who in the whole two weeks on Tinos, didn’t get up till lunchtime every day,  couldn’t wait to bash back ASAP to Luigi’s to collect both our sparkling bedroom chocolate and hers. Luigi’s Domatia place was assuredly pristine perfect apart from one tiny bagatelle of an item, and a piercing and resonant sort of bagatelle at that.

One night when in the mood for steamy amorous dalliance with my lovely wife Annie, I took a playful and massive flying leap into the bed. Instantly I gave a violent cry of bilious agony, and looking down at my knee saw a purple bruise that would have petrified Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, never mind me. If my knee had contacted an ordinary bedstead edge, I suppose it would have hurt  a bit, but this bugger, this bastard, this bloody See You Next Tuesday so-and-so, why it  was moulded onto a stationary arty-farty concrete (that’s right,  bloody concrete!) bed base. The arty and definitely farty and fornicating bloody design, was such that the bed base protruded far more than the orthodox kind, which is why I had gravely underestimated the space I had between mattress perimeter, and the world outside the bed, in which, Annie was lying, fetchingly scantily clad, and staring anxiously at me in my howling agony.

3.Washing Up and Blood Sports

The Greeks. They drive you mad. But. But. Fast forward eleven years until 2014. I had by now assembled a reasonable range of pans and casseroles for my cooking, but was desperately short of small oven dishes and baking trays. Anywhere else but a Greek island, it would be the other way around, and I had to wait a few weeks before I was in Loutra, and looking around the massive hardware store there, before I got my excited mitts on something just the job. It was one of those moulded metal affairs, light grey and with bevelled edges, about four inches deep and one foot long. Splendid, truly excellent I whispered to myself. Just the thing for a modest 1 or 2 person portion of roast vegetables or bulgur/pligouri pilaf or pommes dauphinoise with tarragon, garlic, black pepper and cream.

I took the little darling home, and the same night made a pommes dauphinoise (Prince’s Taties) for just me and nobody else. That plus peppers stuffed with tuna and, going all Gallic again, garden peas in white wine and butter and oil. I washed it down with a brimming bumper of unbelievably delicious retsina, and then set to work at washing up. I looked at my splendid new baking tin and by way of rapturous fraternal love, gave it a really good scrubbing along its touchingly pretty bevelled edges.

Then, fuck me, I shrieked as a knifing pain shot through my hand, and I thought there must be a venomous snake taking a bath in the washing up bowl! I looked and there was gurgling blood a-plenty, all over my innocent, now terrifyingly crimson right paw. I was astonished and wholly uncomprehending, if only because as a rule washing up is not like gladiatorial combat, not even in hoary Kythnos, nor even back in the formerly bloody Debatable lands of NE Cumbria, come to that. Gingerly, very delicately indeed, I took my left forefinger diagnostically along the edge I had just swabbed, and discovered that the bastard was not just like some cruelly bruising Tinos Hora arty-farty bed-end, but rather more like a bloody homicidal razor blade!

Was it a freak rogue item, or was it a standard issue baking tin for those frightening individuals with their doctorates in weirdness, who like a little sanguinary rough play when they are washing up their oh so genteel Prince’s Taties? If not a rogue item, then which unfettered psychopath had designed that appalling hazardous bastard of a casserole tin, and why precisely had the antisocial monster done so? Had he once been sacked by another Greek cooking utensil manufacturer, and in imitation of the disgruntled dismissed employee in a Blackpool candy rock factory, he who had gleefully inscribed the pithy if sardonic message Fuck Off! along approximately  120 miles of best Blackpool rock…had he decided to go out with a bang and bleed half the population of the Western and Eastern Cyclades to an anaemic death?

4.Holes and Lacunae

Finally, whenever you walk along the majority of most Cycladean asphalt roads, every two kilometres or so, you will see a large, deep, lethal, and completely unprotected rectangular hole, very close to where any pedestrian might be innocently sauntering, and especially if they are called me, Kyrio John apo Voreio Anglia. They are perhaps two metres deep, one metre by half a metre wide, hence enough to break your leg and worse if you plummet down one, and especially in the gloaming or the wintry pitch dark. If they serve any road maintenance or arcane transport or complex scientific or subtle logistical purpose, I would love to know what the tartan-coloured shite it might be? The problem is you see, that not a single island Greek ever goes for a walk, or if they do I have never seen them at that shameful and antiquated hobby. Interestingly, the same is true for local country people, farmers and farmhands and the like, in rural NE Cumbria. Thus these pothole/sarcophagi are simply not an anxiety for the Kythniots, unless perhaps one of their dogs or cats goes flying down them, and lies there whimpering to be agonisingly ignored for many hours.

They drive you. Yes?  But they. Yes? Keep you? Yes? Sane! Eh? Sane? Eesoss.  Etsi ketsi….

Maybe. Comme si comme ca…

THE BIGGEST LIAR IN THE WORLD

THE BIGGEST LIAR IN THE WORLD

Ione my daughter and I are both world cinema addicts, and if a film doesn’t have subtitles we seriously think twice about watching it. When I moved here to Kythnos late 2013, I brought some of my precious DVDs with me(yes, yes, I know all about Netbloodyflix, but really you can shove it where the enterprising little squirrel etc) but inevitably I had to leave behind my million or so VHS video tapes. They bore the fruits of all my zealous recording from the digital channels, the late, great Artsworld (now in etiolated and indifferent form as Sky Arts 1 and 2), Film 4 when it was a far superior subscription channel, and listen to this, when it had two glorious and unbelievable avatars called Film 4 Extreme, and pardon me while I shed a sorrowful tear for its going, that sanctuary of blessed memory,  Film 4 World. The latter showed 42 hours a week of superb foreign movies, and believe you me I taped the fucking lot! Unfortunately, I ran out of life to watch everything I had accumulated with all this taping, but the principle of OD-ing on subtitled movies and plentiful and pungent red wine, rather than sundry and addictive drugs, is still one worth pursuing.

The problem was, once I had settled in Greece, my memory eluded me on a certain digital essential, though in fact what I really mean is a digital inessential. It was so long since I’d watched a film on a laptop, I has forgotten you don’t need a bloody internet connection to do so. For complex reasons I have no wifi at home in Kythnos, and I get my connection principally in the Cafe Paradisos.  Consequently, in my ignorant folly, I ended up watching no movies at all for over a year here in Cycladean Greece. And when, belatedly, I realised I didn’t need any domestic wifi , I still had the infuriating problem that my arrogant laptop kept telling me that the sodding Media Player link wasn’t there! It took IT brainbox Ione two minutes to get over this hurdle, by I would say dexterous digito-aboutpissing.  Now that she has gone to do TEFL in Mexico, having got me back into film harness again, I can sit back and watch Bunuel, Merchant-Ivory, Fellini and a host of recent Polish movies to my heart’s content. I can also, and this is where my focused drift is heading, watch Closely Observed Trains by Jiri Menzel which was released in the glorious but soon to be destroyed Prague Spring of 1966.

I was 16 in 1966, by which time, a Czechoslovak communist government sited in Prague, had magically evolved into one of liberal and democratising ideals. It was headed by a very kindly-looking man called Alexander Dubcek, and he permitted film makers like Menzel and writer friends of his like the comic genius Bohumil Hrabal, to produce work that was not so much seditious as simply wishing to be allowed to say and think what it liked. The kybosh came in August 1968 when the Soviet tanks rolled in, Dubcek was exiled to the provinces, and a smileless monolithic totalitarian toad called Husak was put in his place. I had previously had a beautiful and very intelligent penfriend called Alena Pavlovskova whose Dad taught Marxism-Leninism at the University of Ostrava. Like me she was a fan of Menzel and Hrabal, but after the Russian tanks, I never heard from her again. Inevitably I pause and wonder what she is doing right now in mid January 2015, all of 47 years later…

Closely Observed Trains was an adaptation of a 1965 novel by Hrabal, and it is set in a sleepy rustic railway station in wartime Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. True to form, there is a cracked sexagenarian station master more interested in his beloved pigeons than he is in running the station. In the film he is perpetually covered in pigeon feathers and is  cooing and clucking to his darlings, just as they warble and chatter at him. He has two junior colleagues, both of them station clerks. One is mid thirties, male, bespectacled  and lustful, the other an attractive female in her  late twenties, who is sexually provocative and perpetually teasing. One of the best known scenes in all of film history is where she goads her specky, randy colleague rather too far, and he chases her around the station office, threatening to give her a spanking. Instead of which he upends her, takes down her knickers, and smirkingly stamps her behind with the station logo.

Meanwhile a new station employee of about 20 has arrived, the epitome of rural gaucheness and a mummy’s boy to boot. He has a smart new uniform and cap, and spends his time anxiously adjusting it to best effect. He is soon smitten with a handsome girl who is a train guard, but alas fails at the hurdle of performing the act of love. Shortly after he checks into a hotel where he attempts suicide, but is rescued at the eleventh hour. Later, kind-hearted Randy Specky fits him up with a woman of mature years, who shows him how to relax and enjoy himself to potent effect.  I won’t tell you the poignant ending but suffice to say it involves him being used for purposes of sabotage against the Nazis.

I have written at length about Hrabal as he is one of my writer heroes. In his excellent late novella Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, he spins a string of mad tall tales about bizarre rustic eccentrics,  one hurtling after the other, and the only discernible narrative tension (and I promise you, you will want to keep on reading) is the sheer gusto with which all the anecdotes are told. By rights something so episodic ought to fail, but his comic intensity is such that it carries the day, (rather in the same way that M’sieur Marcel Proust’s tension comes not from any plot… but from the mesmerising texture of the infinitely nuanced language itself).

Born in 1914 of an unmarried mother, Hrabal was  a year older than my parents, who were both born in 1915. He had a wonderfully contemptuous attitude towards money and fame and, especially when drunk, was in the habit of giving away the film rights to his books, instead of selling them. Unfortunately for the film directors, he would donate them to several at any one time, without telling the others. He died in 1997 after falling from a building while feeding guess what? Pigeons. In 1975, he had made a public apology for his deviation from socialism to the Communist government, though careful scrutiny of what he actually said, shows it was a veiled apology, if at all. Some young dissidents were so incensed that they burnt his books. Later, just wanting a quiet life and to be allowed to keep on writing, he refused to sign the Charter 77, the dissident movement which would ultimately lead to playwright Vaclav Havel as the new democratic president a dozen years later.

I have cited Bohumil Hrabal for a very good reason, namely as a fiction role model for me, John Murray, as another provincial, albeit, in my case, ‘regional’ English writer. What I admire in Hrabal is his extreme virtuosity at a) hilarious often bawdy farce and b) writing mad digressive narrative that, despite the digressions, manages to carry the reader rather than exhaust them. Of course I am not an East European, so to a certain extent I had a to find a justification, an artistic credo or artistic excuse, that was rooted in my own highly specific provincial Englishness. After about a million years of cogitating on how exactly this might be done, finally in early 1989, as my daughter Ione was being carried inside her mother’s womb, I set about writing Radio Activity – A Cumbrian Tale In Five Emissions. As I slogged away, and I have never written as hard and never will again, I knew that at thirty-bloody-eight, at long last, after fifteen years of purgatorial struggle, I had found my authentic fictional voice. The voice, you will be pleased to learn, was that of an inspired idiot who half the time talked Cumbrian dialect, and half the time could talk a streak in polysyllabic terms, as well as managing to, oh yaas and oh really?,  as well as the best of them.

But to return to the business of comedy and dialect. Not everyone knows that my native Cumbria has an original and inventive indigenous art form. There is a long and venerable history of dialect writing going back at least 300 years. It falls conveniently into two opposing types: the comic or buffoonish tall tale (the Cummerlan Tyal), and the sentimental and lyrical dialect verse. It is definitely a good idea to draw an opaque veil over the latter, as at its best, it is not much better than genial doggerel, and at its worst unreadable a, a, b, b ‘poetry’ with plenty of dialect versions of “’twoulds” and ‘’’twases’” and ‘twilights’ and ‘majestics’ and ‘snow-cappt peaks’. At its very worst, and there is plenty of it floating seraphically  in the copious Letters Pages of the Cumbrian newspapers at any one time, it makes beaming after dinner Rotary Club versifiers look like so many frowning Ezra Pounds or smilelessly lucubrating TS Eliots.

The favourite mode of the Cummerlan Tyal is the Tall Story, and to a certain extent this capacity for wild tongue-in-cheek tale spinning, is celebrated in an international shindig in the deepest part of the Western Lakes. This shindig is boldly named The Biggest Liar in the World Competition. At the Bridge Inn in beautiful Santon Bridge near Wasdale, every November, competitors from all over the globe, though principally Cumbrians, stand up on stage and spin a mad tall story. All this would be pleasing to relate, if the stories were both tall and funny. Alas, as the years go by the stories tend towards the whimsical facetious, and shall we say flagrantly episodic, meaning just one gratuitous daft thing after another.  The point about a good tall story is that it should be right enough mad, but that its grotesque inner logic should be carefully sustained, in the form of a natural narrative tension. It should always make sense within its own imaginative terms, however crazy they be, meaning that it can never be a string of episodic eccentricities, unless that same string has a compelling inner tension. Of course the ideal would be that the tales in Cumbrian dialect would be the natural winners, but in recent years the competition has been won by the likes of bouncy metropolitan TV celebrity Sue Perkins. In 2006 she took the prize with a topical story about melting ice caps, shrinking ozone layers, and folk being transported to work on camels. Not only was it jokey facetious rather than belly laugh funny, Ms Perkins knows not a single word of dialect. And most damningly, had she been telling the same tale in balmy Australia where there are camels galore, the story would not even have seemed tall at all, given that the ozone layer and icecaps are both shrinking faster than Ms Perkins’ lightning comic deliveries on BBC Radio 4.

Nevertheless the virtuoso dialect practitioners are there, if you are prepared to dig in the extensive library archives in the county capital, Carlisle. In the dialect, Cartisle is Carel, and the august and proper pronunciation is supposed to be a bogus Scotsism, where an unimpressed  visitor from Annan or possibly Dumfries said on his return, “Ah care lisle aboot it.”  For me the tender North East Cumbrian countryside of the Debatable Lands is virtually unsurpassed, second only to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. But I agree totally with that cynical Scot about bloody old Carlisle, which in my expert view was a lot better when it was just five plug-ugly but unabashed Workingtons glued together pell-mell, and like it. Apropos which, I have spent a total of 54 years in the county, so if you, doting Cumbriophile, resent my central cynical thesis, may I ask, is the same ordeal by rum butter and BBC Radio Cumbria true of you? By the late Eighties came the musical slogan Come to Carlisle, and it was plastered all over the world, an enticement  to any adventurous dupe who would go for it, if only because alliteration is such a magnetic thing if you are a wide-eyed and peripatetic naïf called Franz or Bianca or Knut or Maggi or Ulf. It was a clever PR lure right enough, on the lines of ‘Go To Work On An Egg’ (vide PR apprentice the author Fay Weldon) and ‘Naughty But Nice’ (a promotional lure for the dairy product cream, from pre-fatwa Salman Rushdie when stuck with his unenviable day job). Later came Carlisle as The City of the 90s, and once you get wine bars and physalis and ciabatta and boulangeries in a tepid and changeless backwater like Carlisle, there is no going back. You change on the surface of course, but scratch the same and absolutely nothing has changed. Go in the very poshest coffee house in Carlisle city centre circa 1991, when you could still smoke anywhere that you liked…and there would be squashed fags cheerfully stubbed out in the cappucino pools and mocha lakes and americano oceans. Of course it was just primitive aboriginal West Cumbrians, up for the weekend, in the new Miami called Carel, and believe me that they really liked, they really genuinely preferred, to stub their fags out in an aqueous pissy saucer, which was partly in any case to affirm they still preferred Wukiton or Merrypot, to shitty owd Carel, for all the transient fuss and bilious promotional hype.

People think that because I write so much about Cumbria, I adore every inch and every sod of it. Far from it, and be assured I don’t like sods of any kind, least of all the Cumbrian variety. It certainly gives me plenty of satirical comic material to write about, but for me there are only two remotely tolerable towns as such, in the whole of massive Cumbria aka, pre-1970, Cumberland, Westmorland and Furness Lancashire. These are transcendently lovely North Pennines Alston, and good for all seasons, no nonsense Brampton, and all the rest are equal last, including smug Lake District pseudo-celebrities like Keswick, Penrith, Cockermouth, Appleby, Windermere, Ambleside, and all those other ineffably melancholy and depressing mirages masquerading as oases.

Still, why should the Cumbrian dialect, at its best, furnish a uniquely comic and let us say magically fabular literature? In part, a major part, it is to do with the Viking heritage as I have described it at length in my 2009 novel The Legend of Liz and Joe. The ancient Cumbrian tongue was heavily Scandinavianised by the freebooting invaders, and even if your only acquaintance with the relevant  languages is restricted to Ingmar Bergman’s sombre films or Benny Hill’s brilliantly inane parodies, perhaps you can grasp the phonetic niceties at stake.

Many Scandinavian languages have a vowel with a preceding ‘y’ sound (pronounced as in ‘yolk’). Thus the name Bjorn is pronounced ‘Byorn’. By analogy, in broad Cumbrian dialect any ‘a’  sound as in ‘face’, acquires a ‘y’ as well. So ‘face’ becomes ‘fyass’, where the ‘ya’ is pronounced as in Yankee. Have a go and see if you can say it, because it is not especially easy. Once you have mastered that, then try some buffoonish dialect virtuosity using the same phonetic rule.

The dialect version of ‘I baked a plate cake’ = Ah byakt ah plyat cyak

Not exactly a piece of urine is it, if you remember that all those ‘ya’s are pronounced strictly as in guitar genius Jeff Beck’s original creative stamping ground, The Yardbirds.

Now leap fearlessly into the abyss, and  try the downright impossible. Remember that in dialect, by false analogy, the ‘oo’ sound in ‘book’ and the ‘o’ sound in ‘smoke’,  follow a variation of the face/fyass rule above, and likewise,  end up sounding like Ingmar Bergman’s subtitled suicide dialogue. Though in this case, in Cumbrian rustic buffoonish fiction, there is obviously not a hint of felo da se, and the worst that can happen in jocose fabular narrative terms, is you get a dose of haemmorhoid piles, and apply the wrong sort of hideously painful pile cream in your genuine and genuinely crazy Cummerlan Tyal.

The dialect version of ‘His galluses(= braces/ US suspenders) loops flew loose!’ = Iss galluses lyeups fleu lyeuss!

If you can pronounce that with any degree of fidelity, you deserve a medal and a free tube of pile cream. Fair enough you might not have piles, but you might well have a boyfriend or a girlfriend who is destined to be wriggling and scratching for a seeming eternity with that same hideously embarrassing complaint.

But as an epigram and to finish things off very tidily. It is possible, I hope you realise, to be both infinitely pessimistic and infinitely comic at the same time. It is called as a rule ‘black’ comedy, and the greatest black comedian this world has ever known, and I’m sure you will never have heard of him, is Albert Cossery. Cossery was an Egyptian writer born in 1913, whom I met and interviewed in Paris in 1997 when he was 84, and austerely handsome beyond belief. He penned Men God Forgot which you might just get on Amazon or abebooks  if you scratch hard enough. This very harrowing, yet oddly heartening book, which is all about absolute destitution in Cairo, will change your life, I promise you, though fair enough you might not wish it to be changed.

Cumbrian dialect has a single black comic proverb which more or less sums up Cossery’s, and for that matter Samuel Beckett’s entire artistic credo.

If thoo can see t’fells,  it’s cos it’s garn ter rain. An if thoo can’t,  it’s cos it’s tyeumin doon…

Do you need a translation? Mm. OK…

If you can see the fells (Cumbrian mountains) it’s because it’s going to rain. And if you can’t, it’s because it’s teeming it down…

A MAN CALLED CUTTLEFISH

A MAN CALLED CUTTLEFISH

It is Shiva, one of the great Hindu deities, who has the striking appellation sahasra namna or ‘having 1000 names.’  The reasonable inference is that that colossal quantity of names implies a ubiquitous cosmic identity and therefore a ubiquitous cosmic presence. If as a Hindu you don’t recognise him as Shiva, meaning Auspicious, then you probably will as Mahadeva (Great Deity), or as Trilocana, which means Having a Third Eye….and ditto the other 997 names. In parallel fashion, in Iranian Zoroastrian theology, you get Aradhvi Sura Anahita, who is a beautiful fair-haired river goddess with the very similar epithet hazangra yaokstivant, meaning ‘having 1000 skills’ (incidentally you can see how Iranian  Avestan is very close to Sanskrit as sahasra and hazangra are obviously cognate words. They are both Indo-European tongues whose posited common source, the hypothetical language proto- Indo European or pIE, goes back to pre 1500BC).

If I had to choose, not that anyone has ever mooted that I might wish to make the fretful choice either way, I would much sooner have 1000 skills than 1000 names. Also, as it happens, I do know a remarkable woman in Germany who, though only having the one name Brigitte Kastner, has possibly  more than 1000 skills at her disposal. Here are some of the many and versatile things she can do:

-Complex house renovation including, decades ago,  the prerequisite of technical drawings. These days of course (she is 75), she can use the computer for all her architectural plans

-Interior design and decoration

-Photography of a very high order, black and white as well as colour

-The  teaching of both Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, and even for those who set their spiritual sights dauntingly high, Kundalini Yoga

-She is  also an expert at Tantric Yoga

-She is also an adept at Tantric sex, meaning even at 75  she can sit on the crest of an orgasm for 100 years should she wish to, without ever falling into the blissful ocean and drowning in its embrace, as it were

-She writes an internationally syndicated magazine column, on Wellbeing

-She successfully practises Ayurvedic medicine, though she is neither Indian nor a Hindu, nor is she married to one, nor related to one

-As well as her native German, she speaks Dutch, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Arabic, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese

-She practises acupuncture

-She practises homeopathy

-She is an expert at giving massage, both for relaxation and for chronic conditions such as stress ME, arthritis, rheumatism, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s and other unpleasant degenerative diseases

-She is a very good cook, even though she is a vegan. She makes gourmet vegan food in short

-She conducts marriages outside of any church, principally but not exclusively for gays, and writes her own liturgies to order

-She can whistle whole operas by e.g. Verdi and Donizetti , and whole cantatas by the likes of Bach and Telemann and Buxtehude and Ritter and Fux,  and it is a pleasure to lend an ear to her melodious susurrations

-She can solve tough crosswords, acrostics, teasers, riddles etc.  faster than anyone I know

-She can also compose well night insoluble crosswords, teasers, riddles etc. more speedily than anyone I have met

-She can sketch very attractively and idiosyncratically, in ink or in pencil, and can paint in watercolours and oils and acrylics

-She can yodel as if she had been born in mountain Helvetia with a lamb tied to one hand and a calf to the other

-She can ventriloquize both in German and in all the languages listed above. All I can say by way of incredulous commentary, is you bloody well try ventiloquizing in colloquial  Japanese, even if you are as  fluent in the language as she is

-She can perform Indian Bharatnatyam dance, complete with all the complex mudra gestures of fingers, eyes, lips and nose

-She can play the sitar, the cifteli, the lute, the zither,  the xylophone, the trumpet, the tenor sax, the penny whistle and the comb and the saw. She can also play the fool very entertainingly, and good for her

-She can mime all sorts of things with brio and comic conviction e.g. a fussy futile man fighting off a fly or a wasp or a hornet. To that extent she is in the league of the legendary Jacques Tati and others

-She can impersonate numerous TV and film and literary and musical personalities far better than those TV comics who make a handsome living from it. She is especially good at taking off Jack Nicholson and the late Truman Capote

 

That will do. The reason why I have elaborated on the 1000 names and skills is only to bring you to the parallel development of the naming of my new Kythnos kitten, Billy Bob. Billy Bob doesn’t exactly have 1000 names, because he is undeniably limited by my powers of invention, and he is after all not a deity, just a charismatic and effervescent Cycladean kitten. So, in short order, here are the umpteen nominal identities of Billy Bob, the son of Asproula, meaning Little Whitey, stark and handsome goddess and hearth and household deity, who guards the portals of the Glaros cafe day in and day out.

Billy Bob

Willy Worm

Pongo Twistleton (lifted of course from PG Wodehouse)

Gussy Fink-Nottle (ditto)

Wilfred Throgmorton

Threadneedle Stitt

Chas Warbelow

Caspian C

Tommy Tit

Tommy Traddles (yes, from Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’)

Bulldog Drummond

Gus Golightly

Hector Bolitho

Little Shite

Little Get

Little Fecker

Little See You Next Tuesday

Laal Whoo-er (Cumbrian dialect for ‘Little Whore’)

Roy Orbison

John Malkovich

Harold Steptoe

Charlie Drake

Billy Smart

Billy Whizz

Bernard Bresslaw

Mick Jagger

Brad Pitt

Dickie Mint (a la Ken Dodd)

Mr Chegwidden (pronounced She-widden)

Mr McCorquodaile

Mr Featherstoneshaugh (wrongly pronounced phonetically. Properly pronounced ‘Fanshaw’)

Clarence Frogman Henry

Cocomo

Marmaduke Pussy (a pun on erstwhile BBC supremo Marmarduke Hussey)

Trini Lopez

Elvis Lemoncello

Marty Wilde

Charles Hawtrey

Leapy Lee (an incredibly accurate and onomatopoeic nickname, if ever there was)

That makes 37 which is a prime number and I am always keen on those. When I was 47, which of course is also a prime, I threw the biggest party ever seen in the small town of Brampton, North Cumbria. I had a hundred guests and it involved hiring a hotel and a vegetarian buffet and a complimentary drink, and it cost me £1000, but that was piffling considering the euphoric joy we all had that night. Some of us drank inconceivable quantities of wine and spirits, and had mythological, indeed medically impossible hangovers for the next two years or so.

Multiple names, whether pertaining to the great deity Shiva or to the little Kythnos kitten Billy Bob, are a subtle and elliptical variation on nicknames which, like prime numbers, I consider a great thing. My daughter Ione as a small child had many nicknames bestowed on her. She was variously:

Minnie

Miniver

Minnie Ha Ha

Minnie Bargain Break

Minnie Cooper

Minnie Schyeul (the latter is the Cumbrian dialect pronunciation of ‘school’)

Looby Loo

Eggy

Eggy Hodgin (the second word is the dialect version of surname ‘Hodgson’)

She was given the jovial nickname Eggy, because as a very small girl she developed a great fondness for boiled eggs, and would greedily eat three in a row with the quaint pop art evidence plastered all over her face. Even now, two decades on, I occasionally call her Eggy Hodgin. She still, aged 25, regularly pauses the gripping DVD we are watching at say 1.25am, to go and boil three of her beloved bloody eggs. I suppose it affords a toilet break and a wine refill, but as everyone knows in confined circumstances boiled eggs can smell of horrible farts and three boiled eggs can smell of a rank and demonic legion of horrible farts. She claims that of all my sumptuous vegetarian dishes, her favourite is the Iranian kookoo, which is essentially a six egg omelette that functions as a savoury picnic cake, and is stuffed with leeks, onions, walnuts and dates and saffron and cumin. I decorate it with pomegranate seeds and pistachios, and to be sure it then looks like an illustrated Thousand and One Nights as well as like a savoury omelette cake.

Names as indicators of jobs and obsessions and lifelong passions? One of my favourite people in the port is Nikos the fisherman whose nickname is Soupies, meaning Cuttlefish. Cuttlefish aged 50 lives on the back road to Horio, and in his massive, beautifully tended smallholding has no less than fifteen cats. One of them has curious black markings around its white fizzog and looks like a Parisian waiter with a moustache. I call him Alphonse Le Ponce, though Cuttlefish like every other Greek has no names at all for his fifteen clamorous friends. I think Soupies spends a hundred and fifty euros a month in feeding his motley crew.

When I ask myself why nicknames are so popular, and to be found everywhere in the world, and at all periods in time, I have to pause a while. In most cases they are both affectionate and comic, and the appellation is a permanent tribute to some whimsical or endearing facet of its owner e.g. Ione and her passion  for eggs, Soupies and his passion for both catching and eating fish. I pause again and recall a dreary factory job I had back in 1979, just after Annie and I were married. The tea boy who, boy or not, must have been all of forty, and had a serious limp hence his lowly job, rejoiced in the nickname of Pisser. He had the foulest mouth and the most unnervingly crude anecdotes I had ever heard,  which adequately explained the nickname to me, but others said it just related to the steaming tea ‘pissing’ out of his massive urn. Obviously concentration camp kapos called The Butcher or Hangman do not bear endearing or comic names, and the nickname is only there to articulate an unbearable reality, because even unbearable realities need to have the patronage of a nickname, in order that we can do whatever is possible, however slight and however difficult, to either change or accommodate to that unbearableness.

As for those variations on Soviet labour camps, namely post-war English secondary schools, they are only tolerable at all when the impossibly motley collection of neurotics, borderline psychotics, and plain paid up idiots that  people their staffs, are given their appropriately demeaning handles. Most of the appellations cited below, those of teachers at my own secondary institution 1962-1969, are self-explanatory. One or two however need some detailed exegesis, all of which indicates that schoolkids have a definite imaginative literary sense, independent of any formal instruction in that direction. Parenthetically, and if it is of any interest, the nickname of the school itself was ‘The Brothel on the Hill’.

Slimy (Geography)

Stumpy (English)

Beaky (French)

Bollicks (English)

Willy Chamfer (Woodwork. Not everyone might know that ‘chamfering’ is the jackplaning along the edges of e.g. a chair leg to give a pleasing ornamentation )

Tex (Metalwork. He was very short and very fat and with three dancing chins, and the impudent nickname was meant to suggest his manly opposite, that of a six foot tall slim cowboy bearing a ten gallon hat and on a valiant and imposing steed)

Fanny Longbottom (Girls’ PE. Uniquely this was both her real name, and her nickname. The juxtaposition of the erotic anatomical words ‘fanny’ and  ‘bottom’, which latter in her case one pictured as ‘ “long” in the sense of “long in the tooth” ’…for she was 50 in 1965 and an old-looking 50 at that… made for a pleasingly facetious and impudent teenage subversion, in the face/bottom/fanny of a woman who was an undoubtedly a harsh harridan even by mid 60s standards).

Finally, here is an endearing poser and one that will speak volumes about your personality, your hidden nature, your ambitions, your ‘goal-setting capacity’, your very moral fibre, it is no exaggeration to say.

If you could choose your own nickname, what would it be?

I don’t normally give away my closest and most intimate secrets, but for once I will.

If I could choose my own nickname, it would be Twanger.

Or Twiddler too would be quite acceptable. Yes, more than acceptable, in fact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DANIEL BLOWS IT YET AGAIN

DANIEL BLOWS IT YET AGAIN

Asproula the charismatic and beautiful white cat that squats on my knee outside the Glaros Cafe, always sits on my left knee, never the right. If any other cat is fool enough to come near, she guards me possessively and hisses, and frequently deals them a virtuoso stunning blow to the earhole, a bit like the way rough English schoolteachers behaved in the 1950s, when it was OK to clatter your deviant pupils long as you didn’t make them permanently unconscious.

One day she looked so happy on my knee, it was if I had a déjà vu to over twenty years ago, when my daughter Ione aged three, would likewise sit there. Without a second thought, I started bouncing Asproula up and down, and could not resist entertaining her with a nursery style ditty. The ditty of course has its proper lyrics, which alas I knew only in improvised form.

To market, to market

To buy a fat cow

Tickety hickety tickety tow!

To market, to market

To buy a fat cat

Tickety tickety, tickety tat!

Ione herself happened to be sat adjacent, and was watching this charade with intense interest. She is even dafter about animals than I am, and thinks nothing of spending an entire summer day inside a roasting Greek sitting room, just to keep a sick cat company, and to chat to it and even to croon a soothing lullaby.

She said to me, “Asproula is really enjoying that. She is smiling, look she really is, she is smiling and smirking from ear to ear.”

I was glad to hear it and continued the To Market song for Asproula’s patent beaming pleasure. However, what I omitted to tell Ione was that earlier that day something far more surprising than a Greek cat enjoying an English nursery rhyme, had happened in my presence. No one over the age of two is going to believe what I relate now, and far more likely is they would suggest that I go and take refuge in the nearest convenient Athenian madhouse.

This is what happened. It was a pleasant sunny day, and I was walking from the middle of the port back to my house, when I bumped into a cat that I have nicknamed Danny. The reason for this he is the absolute double doppelganger of the leader of the Bash Street Kids, in the peerless children’s comic, The Beano. Like the illustrated comic role model, Kythniot Danny is disreputable, grubby, an expert at keeping his own sly counsel, and in his own way, a natural authority among other roaming cats.

As is my wont with all Greek animals, I greeted him as if he was a human being and an English one at that.

“Howdy, kid. Hallo, Danny. Ha-lloooe there!”

Then I nearly shit a brick. I promise you on my life, what happened next, really did happen, I am not just inventing this out of gratuitous whimsy or for facile comic effect.

Danny immediately shot back at me, “Hall-ooooooe”  and it was vocal chords speech not a miaow, I can honestly assure you.

I promise you on my life it really happened, and he spoke with a distinctly human voice, though with perhaps a touch of ironic feline understatement. Since then, outside the Glaros, I have been sporadically trying to get him to say, ‘Fine day!’ or ‘How’s tricks?’ though without eliciting anything other than a bleak adamantine stare.  I have also adopted some sound commonsense, and, given that he is Greek, and not a Brit, I’ve  tried him with gia sas, and when he blankly jibbed at that, I thought, OK maybe like Beano Danny he hates any formality, so coached him instead with gia sou.

But Danny as with the Bash Street Kids’ uncontested leader, craftily keeps his counsel.

Now to bring the two central stars together in a tense, indeed cataclysmic drama, where there was blood in the picture, and the blood I can assure you, was not that of any Kythnos cat. It was early July of 2014, and I was sat down below the Glaros at one of their terrace tables. I had a cafe galliko on the go, plus I had littered my table with three Greek-English dictionaries and an exercise book, pencil and eraser, as I attempted to translate Papadiamantis’s Xristougenniatika Dhiimata, his Christmas Tales. Alexandros Papadiamantis is a wondrously astringent and uncompromising  writer, who presents a challenge for a great many Greeks, which is why not a few of them think I am more than crazy for trying to read him, when they cannot. He hailed from the Isle of Skiathos in the Sporades, where life in the late 19th century was about as comforting as dried blood, whereas nowadays, you might have heard, it is all bare-arse British nudism and cut price package tours for those who like to scorch their Rule Britannia buttocks at minimum outlay. That aside, Papadiamantis wrote in his own highly idiosyncratic form of purified modern Greek known as katharevousa, or ‘cleansed’ Greek. He also peppered his works with arcane and fuck-knows-what-that-means Skiathos dialect, a bit like yours truly does his own wild extravaganza novels with the sometimes impenetrable guid owd Cummerlan twang.

In a way though, that was the least of it. Asproula was sat heavily on my arm, and I was trying to turn the pages of my three dictionaries, one of which weighs a ton, and also jot down all the thorny vocabulary. If I tried to gently move her away she merely returned ten seconds later. So, on I went with my Herculean yet exhilarating  task, and my far too Anglo-passive and far too feebly ultra-considerate cat-sitting.

Then  something dreadful happened. Counsel-keeping Danny came nosing along, and spotting me, he offered a kind of approving if definitely patronising smile. It occurred to me that maybe he also had tried reading Papadiamantis (in time as I said, he proved capable of greeting me in valedictory English, even if it was only one word, and never more again) and maybe like any commonsense Greek had given up the fatuous task. But so much for his laughable patronage. The idiot saw only me sat solo at the table, and did not see Asproula, who by now quixotically was basking on my knee, not on my arm. Assuming my lap was vacant, the myopic and always grubby and often malodorous Danny, leapt up aeronautically with the modest desire to have a little bask himself upon the lap of the only person on Kythnos who every day, come rain or shine, gave him several slices of the best quality ham from the Mini Market in the port.

All hell, and also all of Purgatory, was let loose. Danny landed smack upon amazed Asproula, who no more wanted his unsolicited airborne embraces than she did in the mating season where Danny’s notion of decorous courtship was to whack her one across the maxillary nerve as violently as he could. Asproula went incendiary crackers, and started shrieking and battering viciously at Danny who in turn started squawking and clattering limply back. The crazed commotion and propulsive locomotion was such that it sent me flying swiftly backwards in my chair, and I could not stop it tipping me down towards the rock-hard concrete.

Or could I? Panicking, I put my shaking hands out to stop the fall, and sure enough the finger tips made contact with the stone behind. By now the two feline zealots had raced away to have a do or die gladiatorial combat elsewhere. And there was I, tilted backwards as in the dentist’s surgery, but by a factor of ten,  and with my delicate English head about  one foot from the hard Greek stone. Sure enough, I pushed against my fingers, trying to right myself, and get upright, but the laws of physics denied the impulse. At length I started cackling madly, though there was nothing to laugh about. My leg was copiously bleeding from dual claw marks and my hands were bruised from the fall. More to the point, there was no one around me to witness the accident, and nobody to help me get upright and resume my gruelling if euphoric labours with the Skiathos virtuoso, the pious son of an Orthodox priest, so I had recently learnt.

In the end I shuffled myself to and fro, as if climbing inch by inch out of lethal quicksand. By a miracle I got one foot on the ground, and spotted a handy shrub branch which if I courageously lunged in its direction might well be my gravitational salvation. I said a short prayer, then lunged and lo it held. Slowly, slowly, siga, siga, I put myself upright again  and became, thank God, at one with the Kythnos world once more.

I staggered inside the Glaros where Marianna dabbed the blood and Maria the Greek Australian applied a gauze bandage and a little tlc.

Marianna murmured in her struggling English. “Mr Catman, you must be bloody careful. Why risk death and dangerness for two malaka fucking Kythnos cats?”

It makes a strange conclusion to this tale, but a few weeks later Asproula was diagnosed as pregnant for the umpteenth time. When the kittens were born, and once they started to move around and display themselves, anyone but short-sighted Danny himself, could have seen that they were all doubles of the Bash Street Kids Leader Lookalike, no less. As for me, I didn’t know enough about veterinary science or feline conception cycles, but my bet was the two steamed up buggers had gone off and bunked up somewhere nice and atmospheric, a real handsome Hellenic love nest, once they’d had their fight to the death across my knee. But of the litter of kittens she had, only one survived, and it is now my adopted son Mr Billy Bob, colleague and confrere of Cousin Rex, the only openly declared desert mystic on the paradisaical Cycladean Isle of Kythnos. Billy Bob was of course rejected outright by his mother, so I don’t think in the years to come he will ever give a damn about the picaresque tale of his conception.

Come to think of it, I have no idea of the story behind my own conception, nor for that matter do I know many people who do. Laurence Sterne’s character Tristram Shandy did, we all know that,  and it was all a matter of winding up a clock at bedtime. Wise as he was, Sterne got it correct the first time, and every time thereafter. Time and of course its close affiliate, Chance, are the undoubted keys to all of the universe’s myriad secrets.

THE BULGARIAN GOTH WHO LET ME DOWN

THE BULGARIAN GOTH WHO LET ME DOWN

Aged 19, shy, emaciated Evangelina, is Gothier than Goth, pins and studs galore, exquisitely hennaed hair, and skin-tight faded turquoise jeans. She is thinner than a pea stick and incredibly tall, so she looks a bit like Popeye’s girlfriend, aka Olive Oyl of the pipe-cleaner limbs, crossed perhaps with a female circus huckster walking on stilts. However she has a very handsome East European face, with fine cheekbones and a poetically remote, faintly gypsyish beauty. This is fitting, as her father is Greek and her mother Bulgarian, and they are long divorced and are both employed in Athens. Evangelina is an Athens student, who comes every year to Kythnos for summer employment. In the Paradisos she principally whisks food and drink upstairs to  the palatial balcony, with the very finest view in the port. She is brisk and efficient, despite the seeming Goth languor, and she certainly works hard for her money.

Waving at her as she fetches me a coffee, I suddenly notice something baffling, altogether bizarre. I’m used to a certain strange and problematic phenomenon in Cycladean and Athenian Greeks, but not in a half-Bulgarian Goth, for crying out loud. Her luxurious baseball boots, I note, are patterned with a swirling, marbled blue and red motif. The motif is alas hyper-familiar, and at once I feel mildly aghast. I stare entranced because it is the Union Bloody Jack!

Worse still, she pulls out her tobacco pouch, and to do that she needs to extract her purse from her bag. Her bloody Bulgarian Goth purse is also kitted out as a Union Jack facsimile…

Old Blighty. Old Shitey! Pah. I mentioned in an earlier report that I came here to get away from the UK in September 2013, not to see Brit-loving Greek idolators at every turn, most frequently in the high season here in the Cyclades. I would have expected no such malady, I mean quaint perversion, when it came to mixed race, willow-thin female Goths. But I have to acknowledge the whole of bloody Greece is at it, this kiss-my-arse hagiolatry of all things British, or rather everything English. The same applies to those appalling Greek TV channels, where all ads have some sort of coy English slogan to ornament the ambient Greek. Given that a great many Greeks, whether Athenian or not, know almost no English apart from ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘fuck’, you conclude that they do not understand those parts of the advertisement that offer the frenetic charisma of the foreign commentary. More frustrating for me, is that nobody, not even the brightest or the most fluent of local English speakers, can clarify what the hell it is about, this autopilot flag-waving and yet oddly distanced Anglophilia.  They talk about following the fashion, any old fashion, and that it has no significance at all. Oh really I snort, in that case why no t-shirt slogans in  Serbian or Czech or Belorussian, given that tourists from those places are all starting to come in increasing numbers to Kythnos by yacht, or even by specially chartered excursion ships?  Weren’t they aware that the Great Britain idol they sport so slap-happy on their Greek t-shirts, was on the side of America in the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s? Were they also aware pace their fine novelist Stratis Haviaras, that the first use of napalm by America on foreign civilians, was not in Vietnam in 1966, but in North Greece near the Albanian border, on terrified fleeing leftists in 1946, meaning all of twenty years earlier?

As of 2007, I have spent six summers on Kythnos, including those before I decided on a permanent residence. Some might think the most striking thing I would notice, would be the vociferous influx of Athenian weekenders, or the countless splendidly refurbished German and Scandinavian yachts. Alternatively from my Cafe Glaros outside table, I might be enchanted by those highly profitable sea taxis, which take equal numbers of Greeks and foreigners to the photogenic double sand spit of Kolona, an instantly recognisable motif on all the island postcards.

Far from it. The thing that really occupies my attention is all those bloody crazy Greek tee-shirts. By that I mean the ones worn exclusively by Greeks, which is to say Kythniots and the Athens weekenders, aka 4-wheel-drive summer villa owners. Virtually all these visitors  between April and November wear short sleeve t-shirts, almost all with insignia in the form of proclamatory or didactic wisdom. These frequently coy and cloying insignia are always in English,  never in Greek. Suffice to say that a t-shirt with a Greek slogan on its breast or back, would have rather small cache on Kythnos, and indeed anywhere else in Greece. I estimate from my discreet forensic scrutiny (one should never stare too hard and critically at any woman’s bosom whether it be curiously besloganned or not), that for every 500 English slogans, there is maybe one emblazoned with a message in Greek, and another one in Bulgarian. There are strictly none in Albanian or Rumanian, which would identify the other two ethnicities exhibited here on Kythnos. There are no messages in German, French, Italian, Spanish, much less the Scandinavian tongues or Russian. There are a goodly number of tourists arriving from the corresponding countries, but the segregatory and discriminatory t-shirts refuse to accept all the evidence as such.

Given the paucity of people speaking English here on Kythnos, it would appear that it is far better to have some sprightly seditious motto, or perky double entendre message, written in a language you barely understand. Some of these ebullient messages are impressively sexually forthright or even riotously obscene, in which case not knowing what the hell you have emblazoned on your innocent chest might theoretically be a tightrope strategy.

Behold today, a very overweight and wrinkled Greek lady of about 50, with a vivid Union Jack across her t-shirt belly, as she walks past the Glaros in early August 2014. Above her considerable gut, it says Swinging London, and above that is a double-decker bus passing a majestic emporium called Harrod’s. Her obese and many-breasted husband, who has a fag stump between his wry lips, has a similar t-shirt, but in his case it merely has two bejewelled monarchic crowns, another  Union Jack, and a London bobby smiling. I don’t believe there is a single English word at all on the cheerful pictorial tableau. Why i’faith, and zounds, it would have been altogether redundant…

The hoary Swinging London motifs pass on, thank God, and a pained-looking handsome man of 30 together with his equally handsome girlfriend, strolls past. Their hands and fingers, like those of two somnambulists, are inseparable. On his lean and muscly chest, the shirt proclaims, I Am Looking For an Angel. Meanwhile his best beloved, who looks the epitome of ordinary listless decency, has a rather risqué slogan on her sternum. It says, in her case, Don’t Expect Me To Be Good All The Time.

As a writer looking at the characters before me, whether in Kythnos or back in North Cumbria, or a year ago in Albania and Kosovo, I always try to draw fiction-worthy conclusions. It is just as if I were imitating workaholic Arnold Bennett, sat apparently peacefully in his favourite teashop observing the principal characters for Anna of the Five Towns. That tranquil mien of his was just a sly ruse to allow other people to permit themselves to be observed unawares. In reality he had commenced twenty minutes of  furtive filling up his notebook,  before the image and the teashop inspiration expire. Then he had buggered off to his writing desk and got started on his 3,000 words a day, and that was just the latest novel in progress, never mind the torrential literary journalism.

What occurred to me now, was that if I were this girl who declares she doesn’t want to be thought good all the time, but who paradoxically looks as if she were very good all the time, I would ask sulky handsome Apostolis next to her, why the hell he declares to the whole world that he is looking for a literal  angel, of all things? Because, to her commonsense mind, it is all too obvious  he already has one, the myopic bastard, whether he likes it or not, as the last time she Athenian Kalliope did anything bad was about 28 years ago when, aged two, she deliberately peed on the sitting room carpet in her Glyfada home.

A variation on the same worrying incompatibility, or maybe just a glacial anxiety about one’s partner’s fidelity, passed by an hour later. Again it was a very fat woman, but in her late thirties, and she wore a loose fitting t-shirt of considerable slack and drooping billows. It meant her shirt could contain a vast amount of calligraphic exhortation, and believe you me it did. I was gawking at her for a few solid minutes, and had to pretend I was looking long distance behind her. Her husband visible down below on the sand, and whom she addressed foghorn style from above, this time was no  podge, but a skeletally slim gent of 40. He sported a roughly chiselled moustache, standard Hellenic light grey loose tracksuit bottoms, and some wonderfully offensive bright orange trainers which seemed to proclaim, I don’t mind looking a highly florid psychotic, but believe you me I’m bloody not! Bright Orange Man was doing some idle hand-line fishing by way of island relaxation. He had only bits of stale bread on his line, but he kept catching copious and decent-sized skaros fish, impressive to look at, but as he shouted drily to his spouse, he hated skaros, and was going to give it to his dog back at the Skhinousa villa.

At a guess Fatty and Skinny got on like a house on fire. They just had that look and that special cheery timbre as they both bellowed harmoniously across the cafes and upper and lower roads to each other. Yet Fatty’s t-shirt told another and cautionary tale. Here is what it said, as ever in alien English.

He loves me

He loves me not

He loves me

He loves me not

He loves me

He loves me not

HE LOVES ME!

This lengthy poem, or possibly mantra or spell or incantation, or warding off of The Evil Eye, wound all the way round Fatty’s enormous girth, in a kind of ribbony, dizzying procession. It took up all of the free space of her dugong-like frontage, and the direction and ever upward elan of the poem was indicated by the consistently uphill gradient of the calligraphy. Of course it ended on a victorious and capitalised assertion. But I for one was not seriously fooled.

Sure they got on like a house on fire, and he probably loved her, barrage balloon or not. But underneath the acquiescence, at least in her anxious eyes, might he not stray some time and go for a woman who he could hold aloft in his arms without suffering a quadruple hernia and the rest of his life in a wheelchair?

The occasional four-letter word insignia t-shirts are hardly worth mentioning. There were only two of them glimpsed over the entire summer, and they were both worn by antisocial twenty year old youths from Loutra, both of them with criminal records. More interesting was the unintended double entendre sauciness, I observed the next day in a message-heavy item of clothing, that for once was not a t-shirt. Instead it was a simple and wholesome summer skirt, and the woman who wore it I would say was in her late forties. Over the next few days I observed that she had no partner, nor did she seem to be looking for one on her holiday here in Kythnos. She was neither overweight nor thin, and  was homely and pleasant to look at, without being too taxingly alluring. But odder than the fact she had a talking skirt, was that the talking was all done from the back of the garment, not the front. In effect whoever read her proclamation, her life motto, her beseeching cry to the world…she would not know whether they were doing so, unless she had eyes in the back of her head.

As she walked past me, I saw three lines of jaunty admonition in cautionary English.

Life is not for the timid

It is to be savoured and devoured

This unique and delectable thing is to be grabbed with total passion

Line 1 about the incapacity of the timid, was across her shoulders

Line 2 about savouring and devouring, was across the centre of her back

Line 3 without a blush, was stamped all the way across her portly and succulent 48-year-old backside.

It might take you five seconds to realise the risqué situational pun, which just gives me time to say that later that day the sun went, in and it got damn cold for summer in Greece. The woman with the talking skirt likely felt the chill, as the next time she passed me, and she was sucking a chocolate ice cream as she meandered her way uphill, she was wearing a fetching dark blue knitted cardigan. Like all cardigans, it easily covered her shoulder and her capacious back, but like all summer woollens it did not alas conceal at all that stout and for sure impressively expressive behind.

Thus the only message she had to offer to the world as the sun went in, was stamped on her behind, nowhere else. And what her admonishing behind was shouting to the entire universe at this point was:

This unique and  delectable thing is to be grabbed with total passion

As someone who in his day has taught English as a foreign language (Katmandu, autumn 1973 is what I’m referring to) it was the very first time I felt that a foreigner’s total ignorance of English was a really good thing. And even better that the population around them, should also in the main be wholly ignorant of the world’s best selling language. If Talking Skirt Woman had known what the skirt insignia had meant, she would simply never have put it on, as the saucy pun was almost as evident when she had no need of a cardigan. Far worse, if the naive and trusting population around her had fully understood the English meaning, at least some of the literal-minded males might have decided to accept the challenge and race over and help themselves to a copious portion of that eloquently appealing posterior, which, whether delectable or not, was better than nothing, than having for fuck’s sake no handy female backside to call one’s own, given that it was free and one had been bloody well ordered to grab it.

As coda, I have to admit I always been moved and impressed by anyone given to cynical as opposed to vainglorious boasting. The day after Talking Skirt had donned and later doffed her message revealing cardigan, I saw a dour and attractive woman of maybe 50 walking downhill as if she had just returned from swimming at Martinakia beach. She was on  her own and puffing a hand-rolled cigarette, and the colour of her fingers indicated that she smoked like a chimney, and bugger you, malaka, if you cared to object. Her hair was piled up in a fetching wispy and erotic knot, and she wore slim and sculpted glasses which definitely added to her allurement.

She also wore a very loose white t-shirt, though she was  slim and as it were spiky in an imaginative if not an obvious way. Her shirt as ever had its prominent declaration in English, and in her case it was stamped all over the front, across her full and confident bosom. The message in this instance was a kind of judicial comment, a passing of judgement no less. It read as follows.

I was too sexy for my ex

Maybe I am too sexy for the whole world?

I didn’t say it, but I sent my considered and approbatory reflection to her by this little known faculty I have of intuitive telepathy.

“Go on, kid! Give it to the useless stone-deaf buggers! Bugger the bloody lot of them, whoever they may be, relatives or neighbours, alive or dead. Jealousy is a killer and they love to see someone like you going down and down just like them. There’s only you knows what it was like to go through your divorce. Only you and no one else who knows.”

HOW TO PLEASE YOURSELF

HOW TO PLEASE YOURSELF

I am sat here of a sunny lunchtime, January 2015, in the delightful quiet of the Cafe Paradisos, so aptly named. There are two young Albanians drinking coffee and quietly chatting,  four idle snoozing cats, and myself. I am sat at the back with another cat snoring against my hip, a handsome ginger tom that I have christened Malcolm. As I said previously, Greeks don’t normally give names to their cats, only to their dogs. I called him so, because in  terms of haunting facial expression, he is the uncanny spitting imagine of my cousin Malcolm back in coastal West Cumbria. Indeed at times the resemblance is so uncanny, I think the wholly impossible, namely that no-nonsense Malc is trying to communicate with me by extra-sensory means, all the way from rugged old Whitehaven to the infinitely graceful Cyclades.

Enough of tranquil scene setting. I have something to confess, and I have been wishing to confess it for a long time. It happens to be connected to the fact that I am a writer, and have been a serious one since about 1974 when I was  23 . I have never told anyone about it,  not even my late wife Annie. In her case, rather than me being over-prickly or too sensitive, it was just an unspoken oversight, one of the many things I forgot to tell her before she passed away.

The secret is that I don’t ever write what I want to write, even though I always try to write what I want to write.

To explain such a whimsical formula, let me go back fourteen years to when my friend, supporter and all-round good guy, DJ Taylor, the UK novelist and critic, and partisan protector of the northern regions, gave me the thumbs up for my 2001 novel, John Dory. At one point in his generous Spectator review, he noted that I, John Murray, present that rare spectacle of someone writing exactly what he wants to write, rather than being at the behest of a publisher’s editor or a literary agent. Taylor wrote this with a seeming mixture of admiration and cheerful bewilderment, for he better than most, knows that if you dare to be too original, too regional, and especially if your regionalism tries, paradoxically, to be too universal and cosmopolitan in its rebellious mode of extravaganza comedy, you stand to get a hefty kick in the testes. In my case, I deliberately filled some of my books (e.g. Radio Activity, 1993 and The Legend of Liz and Joe, 2009) with entire narratives of pungent phonetic Cumbrian dialect (always with a convenient running translation) put there not for local colour’s sake, but rather as a parallel storyline in their own right. Taylor had already diagnosed things accurately, in a review of an earlier mid 90s novel, when he added that I wrote ‘like an East European’ more than like an English author. As far as I was concerned, this was the very highest praise.

Let’s forget about me for a while, and turn to my youthful hero, the iconoclastic and some would say outrageous, Henry Miller. In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, which he published in the 1950s while living along the remote Californian coast, he wrote with considerable bile about the problem of breaking into print. Miller said that young writers of real originality and talent, would find things very difficult in publishing terms, ‘because they are either too good, or not bad enough.’ In the same paragraph, he referred rudely to those genre writers who work with formulaic plots and two-dimensional characters, and who write in the main for money and nothing else, as ‘paid pimps’. Back in 1980, as an unpublished but dedicated full time writer, I hungrily devoured this rambling, autobiographical, and very uneven book, and certainly applauded all the denigrations.

To get back to failing to write what you want to write. The novelist Joyce Cary, author of The Horse’s Mouth, very big in the 1950s, but a decided minority taste these days, stated it as a pleasingly negative conundrum. What he wrote was:

‘No one ever saw what went into Tolstoy’s waste paper bin’.

I wonder if many of us can appreciate that infinitely enlightening irony. Tolstoy the immeasurable genius, tried to write a masterpiece about the Napoleonic Wars and, as evidenced by his waste paper bin, he, like all other writers, failed. The reason is, he aimed at something we might call the truly enormous X, and instead he succeeded in writing the less enormous Y. X was his limitless artistic visionary dream of his massive epic, and Y was what he actually succeeded in, and which he anticlimactically entitled War and Peace. Applying the same sort of image of a great writer watching a very disappointing compositional trajectory as they slog away at their seemingly ailing masterpiece, George Eliot, all the way through the writing of Felix Holt, Radical genuinely believed that she had no talent whatever as a writer. So, all you fretful novices, beware! If George Eliot, who was of unapproachable artistic stature, and who worked like a slave,  still thought she could not write, what hope is there for you on your top notch Creative Writing MA, and your nice little spring folder with that bulging portfolio of yours, which despite being peppered with nothing but As and A pluses, simply might not get you where you want to go? Do you grasp the idea being propounded by the likes of these two very different authors, Miller and Cary? You who on your MA are aiming at the vision of yourself with a 3-book contract, £100,000 in the bank, a state of the art author website, and a lovely former manse with ten bedrooms in the Outer Hebrides for your summer retreat.

Let’s call that X again. And let us sadly assure you, that instead of that X, you will get the more than anticlimactic Y. More likely it is, that after a decade of relentless slog, you will be dismally stacking shelves in a 24 Hour Tesco at 4am, with thirty different literary agents all whizzing you their form rejections, all of them carolling in  heartrendingly beautiful descant:

Unfortunately

This one

This one, alas

This one, this one

Is Not

For Us…

And here we have to join hands with Theology. There is a famous Christian spiritual admonition with regard to the kind of prayer that one makes by way of petition to God above.

‘Be careful of what you pray for, just in case you get it!’

This doesn’t just apply to the artistic struggle, of course. If you are a middle aged and divorced woman, you maybe pray in earnest, whether inside or outside of a church, that you will get a moneyed, handsome, muscular, and phenomenally popular husband. He will be mid-forties like yourself, and with no less than four lovely homes in Brighton, Rhodes, St Lucia and Florida. By dint of repeated petition, you get the bugger alright, your persistence is certainly rewarded, but he the dream husband turns out to be a prize Arschloch  of unwonted obnoxiousness, and is a serial philanderer to boot. He has taken several exacting courses and diplomas in Advanced Arseholery, and has an MA in Arschlocherei wie ein Economisches Weltanschaung and a PhD in Preeminent Arseholes Throughout the Ages. And every day, you say to yourself through your wretchedness, if only I had prayed for something else!

Apropos tantalising dreams, Henry Miller described his own literary initiation as a kind of do or die sacrifice of everything he knew. He left a maddeningly tedious job in New York, and moved to Twenties Bohemian World Capital, Paris. There, living on almost nothing, aside from wine and plentiful fornication, he wrote his Tropic of Cancer. It was published in 1934 when he was 42 and therefore getting on, according to George Orwell, who wrote the famous essay about Miller, Inside The Whale. Orwell, that unequalled and infinitely penetrating English autodidact, was impressed by Miller on various scores. He said that he was one of the last great hopes for English prose, which he diagnosed as in terminal decline. The phrase that always stays in my mind was that Miller was ‘not afraid of the English language’.  One indication of this was that he was also not afraid of the unusual word or unusual phrase. Interestingly, Orwell also prophesied that Miller’s ferocious energy and euphoric prose, might at some stage degenerate into charlatanism or obscurity, and that there were signs of this already.

True enough Miller’s oeuvre is remarkably bumpy by any standards. For me his best work is Tropic of Capricorn, his trial by fire of working for the New York ‘Cosmococcic’ Telegraph Company, before he made the break for Paris and the proper business of becoming an artist. It has the same ferocious energy and wild abrasive comedy of the other Tropic, but without the same degree of callous shock effects. Capricorn is a more human book as far as I’m concerned, and is also an extended cry of anger at the nightmare of corporate America of the first two decades of the 20th century.  Of a similar flavour is Black Spring which is also one of DJ Taylor’s favourites. Taylor admits that he came to many of his favourite writers, via his teenage idol Orwell. Hence as well as Miller, DJ Taylor is an expert on Dickens, Thackeray and George Gissing, all of whom Orwell discussed with astringent precision, in his very finest essays. (Incidentally, it has only just occurred to me that Orwell having also written of Billy Bunter and Frank Richards, maybe polymath Taylor is an infallible expert on the Fat Owl of the Remove? I must ask him one day.)

Miller himself would have probably regarded his heretically named trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion as his best late work. That is true for me too, but the New York based volumes Plexus, Sexus and Nexus, are again very patchy. My favourite is Nexus which covers that hellish period when he had been ditched by the woman Mona of whom he was slavishly enamoured. At one point there is a remarkable passage where Miller (his novels are always autobiographical, though sometimes as well as Henry he refers to himself as Val ) driven to suicidal despair, decides to turn himself into a dog. Fittingly he  gets down on his knees, and barks at some length, woof, woof! The writing is so brilliant, it makes one as a serious and ambitious writer, ashamed of what one cannot do. It is an absolute primer for anyone who has ever suffered in love (and parenthetically, another recommendation in case you are interested is Ingmar Bergman’s 70s cinematic masterpiece, Six Scenes from a Marriage).

Miller is routinely criticised and shunned as pornographic, and indeed in the late Sixties all his books were put in sealed cellophane covers in the UK. Today this censorship seems absurd but my wife Annie, decades later, could not endure Miller at any price. She found his attitude to women and sex, unreadable and unbearable. I did not try to dissuade her other than to say that his so-called pornography is anything but erotic. For him sex is below stairs farce and worm’s eye comedy, and the best way to express that is in worm’s eye expletives and in graceless but vigorous comic detail. When copulators of both sexes reach orgasm, they emit the original interjection, Paff, paff!  When Miller himself in Plexus is reaching climax with a woman randomly encountered via a friend of a friend, he compares penetrating the woman’s vulva to ‘slamming his cock up to the hilt, into a bed of steaming mussels’. Finally, once orgasm is reached, Miller all but gets out the trumpet, and exclaims, Bingo!

Other critics damn him for the sheer badness of his worst books, principally the late 70s didactic essays about the spiritual good life. Interestingly his bias is Christian and the Sermon on the Mount features largely, though he conflates all sorts of things in Christ’s teaching to conform very fittingly with his own Jonah-(i.e. Henry Miller)-Sitting-Safe-Inside-The-Whale view of life. He is also fascinated by oriental philosophy, and has written on the great novelist Yukio Mishima, the same who ended his life so horribly with ritual disembowelment, seppuku, an act which true to form, Miller decides to praise.

This is where, in let us say mature adult terms, the world of British literary  critics (Taylor and the excellent Tom Deveson of the Sunday Times, honourably  excepted) always fails to adjust to what it is like to be grown up. Or maybe rather than mature adult I just mean cosmopolitan European as opposed to astigmatic English. For example, another highly uneven writer is DH Lawrence, who nonetheless a few UK critics will admit is unarguably a genius. Others, the teeming, twittering broadsheet orthodoxy you might say, will say he is so bad at his worst that he is barely worth consideration. Thus a tenured cloth-head like the novelist and critic Philip Hensher,  went on record in The Guardian in 1992, that his own writer hero, Henry Green, was superior to DH Lawrence. To be sure Henry Green was a very gifted writer, but the problem is that like that other very mannered and elliptical stylist Ivy Compton-Burnett, he is such hard work that for most of us the saltmines labour of reading him, far outweighs the pleasure entailed. Henry G and Ivy C-B will alas never be other than a minority taste. Meanwhile someone needs to bind and gag Philip Hensher, and read him at random any page of Sons and Lovers, or alternatively the best of Lawrence’s stories, and then  encourage him to stop being an adolescent and to grow up. Self-evidently Lawrence’s Kangaroo is Fascist-praising drivel, and Aaron’s Rod incredible stop-start rubbish. The Plumed Serpent is full of gratuitous and repugnant cruelty about all sorts of things, and especially bullfighting in Mexico where Lawrence evidently sees a screaming horse with ripped open intestines as a source of amusement. But someone should also read to Hensher that letter of the youthful Flaubert to his girlfriend, where he declares his conviction that all really great writers are not only very uneven, but at times full of very bad stuff.

‘Hugo is full of bad things – but what lung power!’

Enough said. Lung power is what we ought to be demanding of writers of all the world’s nations in 2015. Here in Greece the great Skiathos writer, Alexandros Papadiamantis (1852-1911) and his masterpiece The Murderess (translated in 1983 by Peter Levi) demonstrated quite anomalous lung power, and has remained a classic ever since. It is a shocking tale based on real events, about an old woman so horrified by the fate of what little girls faced as they grew up in 19th century Skiathos, that she chokes a number of them in her village to death. She then goes on the run. Dramatised recently for the Athens stage,  it is permanently on tour somewhere in the country. It is also along with the powerful and often shocking stories of his contemporary Georgios Viziyenos, a set text for 16 year old Greek schoolkids.

Back in Old Blighty in my day, for O level we read Kipps by HG Wells. To be sure it is a great little comic novel, but the lung power as such is rather faint and rather distant. And believe you me, for a 16 year-old, even back in 1967, and even in a mournful little backwater like West Cumbria, reading it was more or less like Death by a Thousand Cuts. Ultimately you may recall, it was turned into a sell out  musical called Half a Sixpence starring the 1950s pop star Tommy Steele.

Fair enough. OK.

So who’s got anything to say against Tommy Steele?