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…

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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?

KISS MY ASS, AND SEE YOU LATER

KISS MY ASS, AND SEE YOU LATER

I have already written about the recent acquisition of my Kythnos kitten Billy Bob, the one cruelly if explicably rejected by his mother, the statuesque and snow white  Asproula. I omitted to say, that I subsequently acquired a second male kitten living wild on the streets, who, after some struggle, I christened ‘Cousin Rex’. That enigmatic and Dickensian name definitely suits him. I don’t know whose cousin he is, if any, but he has the air of being one of those dusty, unfathomable blood relatives, only grudgingly received at Christmas, Easter or any other festive time. Cousin Rex is lugubrious, meditative, distant, withdrawn, but also mutedly affectionate when it suits him, which is approximately once a month. Every time I see him opaquely brooding away, I feel like saying, Hell’s teeth, cheer up, little man, little bloke, little guy! You have between six and ten very tasty meals a day here, including tinned sardines and occasional cream, plus while we’re at it the pick of my comprehensive library of jazz, world music (your own great nation’s Greek rembetika included) and all my Baroque opera CDs, and you still  bloody saunter around the place as if life is somehow a perplexing and inexpressible burden…

In Cousin Rex’s case he cannot blame his parents, or certainly not that sweet ginger-haired mother of his, who I call Maud, for his glaring emotional deficit. His probable father is certainly a five star Ne’er-do-Well, who Ione and I, in total harmony given his ungainly girth and width, have dubbed Fatty Arbuckle. F. Arbuckle has a penchant for picking uneven and undemocratic fights, and flagrantly stealing scraps from one-eyed cats and titchy kittens, and is clearly ever ready to surrender his life for one cubic speck or atom of stale kefalotyri cheese. But Cousin’s Rex’s mother is very evidently a feline saint. She, Saint Maud of the Cyclades, would for weeks lie in the middle of the road, while the port’s beeping traffic dithered round her, and with four kittens including C. Rex (not to be confused with the heraldic and psychotropic rock band, T Rex) all suckling away furiously at her nipples. Unbelievably, she also went fishing along the shoreline for sardines and gopas (like sardines but without that saline, proteiny pungence…and extremely delicious).  When she caught a gopa, instead of instantly bolting it, as Dear Old Papa Arbuckle would have done without a blush, she carted it back to her offspring and let them greedily gnash away. While they gobbled and mewed their satisfaction, she licked and patted and petted them, and I saw Scandinavian yachties and Greeks alike, moved to the core at the dizzying sight. So much for that ignorant pejorative slur of ‘behaving like an animal’…

I began this excursus about cats, simply because when daughter Ione is busy down in the Cafe Paradisos with her laptop, and I have no one to confide in about anything urgent or topical, I find myself invariably talking to Billy Bob. I don’t talk to Cousin Rex of course as, a) he wouldn’t be paying the attention that Billy Bob always does, ears a-cock and eyes dilated in gaping wonder at my flushed eloquence, and b) he, C. Rex, unnerves me with his saturnine glower, which also half the time looks like that of a smileless desert anchorite and mystic.

Today I was talking diffusely to Billy Bob on the universally popular subject of…backsides, and he was definitely gripped. Truth to tell, I have been thinking about backsides quite a lot lately, partly in the standard and healthy erotic context of various callipygous Greek women glimpsed in the purview of the port where I live… but also in a very profound and teasingly taxing epistemological context. Believe you me, I am not joking about this at all, but I realise I need to offer the reader what they call the back-story and in this case, more aptly no doubt… the backside story.

My daughter Ione had the previous day posted a Facebook notice to the effect that she had been watching a great many movies starring her unbeatable Mexican heartthrob, Gael Garcia Bernal. Indeed it had got to the stage where, with her laptop, if Bernal was in the film only intermittently as in Inarritu’s excellent Babel, she would simply fast forward it until lover boy reappeared on screen, and she could drool and dream again for the next ten minutes. She added in her fb post that she had been ‘not unelevated’ by the magnetic sight in Bad Education of his ‘comely buttocks’. Within a few minutes she received a lengthy response from a woman friend of hers called Lizzie, a TEFL worker like herself toiling away in distant and inscrutable Luxembourg. However, far from co-drooling or counter-puking about Casanova Gael of Guadaljara, Luxembourg Lizzie was simply picking up on an anxious linguistic and semantic point.

‘I thought,’ she posted, and for all of Ione’s considerable fb readership to see, ‘that the proper word, meaning the correct standard usage in English is ‘buttock’ and that it is singular, Ione. That’s what I’ve been telling all my TEFL classes here in Clervaux, Luxembourg, and what they’ve all been chanting here and outside the class. So when you wrote about Gael Bernal’s ‘buttocks’, it made no sense to me, as if you were talking about his ‘noses’ or his ‘faces’ or his ‘stomachs’? It worries me, Ione, if I’ve got it wrong. What do others of your TEFL fb followers reckon about this?’

The first thing that occurred to me when my daughter showed me this singular (!) buttock post was, why in hell’s name are they chanting aloud about either ‘buttock’ or ‘buttocks’ in TEFL classes in Luxembourg?  Even should that be in beautiful and innocently sensuous and atmospheric Clervaux (I visited the lovely town once with a Southbound Five Countries Coach Tour costing all of £20 all inclusive for a week back in pre-Cambrian 1967). My next reflection was one of truly vertiginous though innocent amazement. This woman of thirty, who was highly educated and  very cultured according to Ione, had spent not less than three decades wrongly thinking that ‘buttock’ was a singular and as it were collective noun.

“Think about it, “I expatiated later to Billy Bob. “If you were an average Englishman or Englishwoman going about your business and deciding to sit down and have a glass of Liebfraumilch after a hard day’s slog. Would you say to yourself while bending towards the chair, Lo I am putting my buttocks on this upholstered IKEA object, or, Lo, I am putting my buttock on this upholstered proprietary brand object? Well if you were brainbox Lizzie of Luxembourg, you would opt for the latter and you would have been plumping for that colossal linguistic and anatomical howler for thirty bloody years, Cousin Rex.”

No harm in trying to do the impossible now and again, but sure enough C Rex couldn’t have cared less, and even hurtfully looked away from me. Meanwhile Billy Bob didn’t exactly look like he was about to say, fuck me stiff, boss!, but he certainly looked as if he would have liked to, after I had regaled him with Lizzie of Lux’s bizarre misapprehension. In any event I developed my comprehensive associative theme, as I gave him one or two paradigm cases of other amazing misconceptions. Famously there had been the baffling discussion I had once had, with a very intelligent freelance science correspondent for a major English Sunday newspaper. She had been on a week-long residential course I was teaching in Oxford, and we had been talking for some reason about fruits and vegetables. At one point, I happened to mention the exotic and delicious pomegranate, and she looked at me blank and uncomprehending. Never in her life, she confessed, and she was in her mid forties i.e. far older than Luxembourg Lizzie, had she heard of anything called the pomegranate or rodi as it is known in Greece, where it grows by the cartload, and in islands like Dodecanese Karpathos literally litters the ground. And she was a bloody science correspondent, I added to Billy Bob’s waxing stupefaction! And come to think of it, BB, I believe she mentioned that her first degree had been in bloody old Botany…xylem and phloem and schlerenchyma and parenchyma and rhizomes and cotyledons and all that delirious and yes you’re right Hellenic-derived paraphernalia.

But I can think of even crazier paradigm scenarios than that. By now, dear reader, I am addressing you direct, given that the infant Billy Bob had suddenly fallen asleep. Listen now, esteemed auditor, to a sobering tale of the state of human ignorance. My late mother-in-law who lived most of her life in council house West Cumbria, had a close woman friend who took a package tour one year to balmy Tunisia. It was one of those jaunts where they slap you in a luxury hotel far from any town or city, and with its own cordoned-off beach, and groaning full board, and doubtless cheerful Tunisian ventriloquists and acrobats thrown into the bargain, by way of piquant evening diversion. In short, you never needed to leave the bleeding resort hotel, which definitely suits certain monocultural, monoglot slackers, and of all social classes, high and low, be it noted. All of which might explain the following impasse between my mother-in-law’s pal, and a bouncy male neighbour who had just walked up from his own immaculately renovated council house. When this someone called Ted, rather better versed in certain obscure cosmopolitan niceties, asked her cheerfully, “So? How did you like Africa then, Ethel?” there was a considerable sense of pregnant anticlimax ensued.

Ethel knocked the ash off her Low Tar Benson and Hedges, and said to Ted, uncomprehending. “Eh?”

“Africa,” grinned Ted. “Come on and tell us now, my old dear. How did you like the experience?”

Ethel who didn’t like being called anyone’s  old dear, turned pettish and retorted, “I’ve never been to shagging Africa! I wouldn’t go there for love or money.”

Ted started a little but tried again. “Really, my dear? But you’ve just come back from Tunisia, haven’t you?”

Ethel shrugged. “Yes I have. What of it? And stop calling me bloody ‘my dear’. ”

“Well Tunisia is in Africa. And if you prefer, I shall call you darling instead of dear.”

“No you bloody won’t! And no, it’s not in bloody Africa!”

“Mm. I don’t usually swear in the presence of a nice lady like yourself, but I have to tell you, Ethel, my ah, my er, friend, that it bloody well is! Now then, look, I can see you have a Reader’s Digest World Atlas over there on your shelves. In mint condition, I see,  and perhaps never quite fully  opened. Now. Yes. See there? Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia. See. That’s where, gospel truth, you’ve been on your recent holidays, friend Ethel, I have to tell you.”

Ethel was monumentally aghast, as if being accused of sexual perversion or petty larceny. “Shite, shite, shite! “she blurted unmusically. “God, if only I had known! I thought it was next to Spain. Honestly I did. I promise you all.”

But believe me, I can think of a third and final and even crazier paradigm than that. Let’s backtrack to spring 1977 when I was living with a young woman called Nina, a hospital nurse aged 24, me, dear reader, being a struggling and sometimes surly young author aged 26. Nina was very fair, beautiful, spirited, homely, but overwhelmingly transparent and naive. She was therefore capable of embarrassing me and making me cringe to the roots of my being, all of which meant in effect that our time together was soon to foreclose.  For example, we had had a very fine camping holiday in the Inner Hebrides of Mull, Ione and Tiree, in that sweltering late summer of 1976. Thereafter Nina in any sort of company, Cumbrian International Marxists, arty-farty Gaullois-puffing types and yurt-dwelling hippies included, was wont to refer to The Hebrides as ‘The Hebs’. You should have seen me fighting my hellish blushes and even a little nascent fury with my far too breezy if bonny girlfriend. Worse still, although she was a nurse, and had seen very grisly things, and of course Death itself , she had a curious way of being both as foul-mouthed as me, and at times as all-purpose antiseptically prissy as a servant nanny born somewhere around 1895.  Thus if she went and  stubbed her toe, or dropped a spoon or tripped over a rug, she might one day like me say shite! or fuck!, but just as likely she would exclaim along the lines of an Enid Blyton Girl Guide Sixer.

“Oh, bottom! ” she would curse, and I blushed all the way to the moon on her behalf. Or alternatively and just as rocket-propellingly mortifying. “Oh, bum!”

I ask you. If she had said, Oh, arse! I would not have flushed or shuffled my fingers and effortfully restrained the soon to be vicious lash of my exasperated tongue. In any event, she and I in early 1977 were in the company of a man called Abel, who in two years’ time would be the best man at my wedding to Annie in Wythop Church near Bassenthwaite Lake. Abel was an extraordinary man, an artist aged 34, and a graduate of the Royal Academy in London. He had known personally Henry Moore and had also been an acquaintance of RB KItaj, who was a graduate of the RCA. He was also my brother’s brother-in-law, and otherwise it was unlikely we would ever have met. Once an art teacher in a public school, he had been unemployed for over a decade, and in his excessive free time he now painted very rarely and seemed indifferent to most things other than the poetry of William Blake and the music of Mozart. He was on medication for depression and perhaps this explains why his laughter when he collapsed as he regularly did into mirth, had an anomalous squeaking and whistling sound to it.  Not so long ago he had been good-looking and fit, but now with his medication he was puffy and bloated and his eyes rather slanting, lined and perplexed.

Suddenly something extraordinary happened. Nina without so much as a warning cough or an apology went and farted! As with most established couples, she and I would often unembarrassedly trade flatulence and titter or guffaw  if appropriate. Add to that, that  Nina was a nurse, and a nurse who has not known public trumpeting from say patients rallying from anaesthetic, must be deaf from birth as well as a nurse. The point is that she would not have farted in front of Abel deliberately, it was just one of those deviant darling ones that had, as they say, ‘slipped out’.

Abel looked amazed, as if someone hiding behind the sofa had tried to shoot him dead. I looked at him and at blushing, giggling Nina, and burst into wild hilarity. Abel then relented and erupted into his own mad cachinnations. He slapped his thigh and whinnied and gasped, and was evidently struggling to articulate something very vital for our ears.

Nina said, “Whoops, so sorry. It slipped out! I don’t normally do anything like that I can assure you, Abel.”

Abel was crying with merriment and aching to tell us something urgent through his tears. After perhaps two minutes, eventually he managed to deliver us a startling and unprecedented statement.

He declared, “I’m 34 and that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a woman fart! And know what? I genuinely believed they never did! I didn’t know how they managed it in physiological terms, but I simply assumed they never ever broke wind. And as I say, for me it’s a first.”

You would have thought he was a louche and overweight vicar, talking about losing his dear old virginity at forty, or sampling cannabis, or swimming successfully without plastic wings.

“That’s quite impossible, “said Nina the ever sensible nurse. “I mean, Abel darling, you must have known it’s impossible for anyone of any gender never ever to do windies. They would be in a lot of ghastly  intestinal pain if they couldn’t. Why they would have to do a pooh-pooh every time they…”

I said irritably. “ For God’s sake say shit, Nina! You’re not in the children’s ward now. And don’t say windies either, say fucking fart. Say shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, fart, fart, fart, fart ..!”

Then I turned to Abel and said that as he was of a huge family of ten siblings, including seven girls now in their fifties and forties, as well as their twenties, it was bloody weird he had never in his puff heard a single female fart! Did he have severe hearing not to say perplexing olfactory problems, as well as chronic depression? The debate continued until all three of us were seized with you might say the hysterics of crazy Rabelaisian scatology…and we all began to slap our thighs and cry like babies and clout our bellies and beg for the relief of painless sobriety in lieu of mad laughter.

Then the inevitable happened. Nina farted a second time, and of course no one could blame her given the gut-wrenching intensity of our incendiary and torrential glee…

“Oops, “she purred, and then guffawed, and then collapsed into renewed hysterics.

I sighed and turned to Abel and said, “Your second ever female fart, Picasso! You are 34 and in twenty minutes you have heard not just one but a second unheralded and feminine afflatus. Buy one get one free, son. Buy one now and Nina will give you another one free, as the promotions always tell you…”

 

All this brings up back to Lizzie of Clervaux who had spent thirty years thinking that her and everyone else’s backside, was not a pair of buttocks, but a single unit called a buttock. This strange fantasy of hers set my head reeling, and the epistemology of it all was exceedingly daunting. I was aching for a blackboard and a bit of chalk to put it squarely. Instead I got out paper and pencil and scribbled it all down in black and white.

GETTING INSIDE LIZZIE’S HEAD, OR PYGO-ARITHMETIC LAID BARE

 According to Luxembourg Lizzie, 1 real backside = 1 Lizzian pseudo- buttock, and therefore 1 real and genuine buttock is, in her terms, not 1 buttock at all, but a Lizzian half-buttock!

 Two Lizzian half buttocks therefore = 1 Lizzian backside, and 1 Lizzian backside, thank God for that, is the same as anyone’s quotidian designation of a backside.

 But bizarrest of all, this cultured and well-read TEFL gal aged 30,  thinks a backside and a buttock are the same thing, the same unitary entity! And horrifying to contemplate, she has half of the population of the venerable Duchy of Luxembourg thinking and spouting and even fucking chanting inside and outside the TEFL class the same atrocious heresy!

 You can see the difficult analogical problem that Lizzie must have faced at some stage in her youthful cognitive development.  She says to herself when say 16 or 17 and of an inquiring maidenly nature, at naturally enough thinking of the mystery of her budding adolescent body,

I have 2 ears, 2 lips, 2 eyes,  2 eyelashes and eyelids, 2 nostrils, 2 arms, 2 legs, 2 feet, 2 breasts, 2 thighs. I call them collectively,  ‘a pair’ of ears, lips , eyes, feet, thighs etc.

However I have only 1 head, 1 nose, 1 mouth, 1 chin, 1 belly, 1 fanny, 1 backside,

 I have though on examination a backside which is sometimes given the strange name of a buttock. This backside which is also called a bottom or a behind, is in addition called’ a buttock’, and you see this weird word in butcher’s shops, and in certain wrestling contexts where they talk for example  of the cross-buttock hold. This buttock aka backside is anatomically split in two, but for some reason they never refer to the two separate halves. But if they did, I suppose they would be half-buttocks or semi-buttocks or demi-buttocks.  Of course no one to my knowledge ever talks about a half-backside, so perhaps the problem is altogether superfluous and unworthy of discussion.

 The philosophical and epistemological problem here is considerable, and this is regardless of Clervaux Lizzie’s cockeyed take on all things posterior and a posteriori. Which of the two, an epistemologist would enquire, has ontological supremacy, and which of the two truly speaks for the true nature of the entity-upon-which-one-sits, which now we realise with some trepidation is either a Unity of a Duality. Is it the single-entity King Backside as commonly understood (even by heretical TEFL brainbox Lizzie), or is it the separate bifurcated entities and twins, the Paired and Symmetrical Buttocks, which in effect stand for a highly hallucinatory existential Duality?

Imagine for a whimsical while, proposes an earnest philosopher, that you, a human being, were instead an ‘inanimate’ buttock suddenly magically given the gift of life. You realise very soon that of course you are one of a conjoined two, meaning you are half of a bifurcated, but as it were Unified Backside. Would you, you solo but twinned Buttock, wish to be seen as the ur-Fundament =Heuristic Foundation of all things? And thereby, and in the same breath, the true and venerable Monobuttock ur-Backside, and thus the original ontological substratum as it were? Or would you cede supremacy to the tyrannical and hoaried and complacent pants-filling monozygotic solo unit known as The Backside as Commonly Understood. This, with its two subjugated, dependent and less than dirt, auxiliaries, the laughable things with the laughable names, for they are known as the Buttock Twins aka Tweedledum and Tweedledee. These two circus clowns being more of a butcher’s or a wrestler’s comical terminology, a couple of lowly down at heel Shakespearean jesters known as the risible Buttock Boys from Way down West.

I can also discern an even simpler diagnosis. The problem of what is a singular and a plural in simple linguistic, not anatomical terms. For example, I once made a London woman friend laugh by talking about buying a pound of ‘okras’ that day in Hackney. She chuckled and told me both the singular and plural of okra was ‘okra’, just as it is with say the word fish. I ruminated a while then smiled back and said, what about the legitimate variant of ‘fishes’ as in ‘the fishes of the sea’? She sighed and said OK, clever dick, Mr Brains,  but if you have to have your necessary plural because it makes you feel happier, then simply call them ‘ladies’ fingers’  for the plural and ‘lady’s finger’ for the singular.

But getting back to this oh so urgent conundrum of Unity and Duality, with all its resonant Indian philosophical associations as in Vedanta Advaita and Vishishta Vedanta Advaita. I think in effect I have solved the problem or let us say the Pain in the Backside Teaser, in one fell swoop. It is obvious is it not? You just go to Quantum Theory physics, where as everyone knows the physical characteristics of the phenomenon of Light, are seen to be explicable neither in terms of waves nor particles, but as Both.

Simple, I said brightly to morose Cousin Rex who was still awake while Billy Bob was as peaceful as a philosopher who has solved the hardest and the biggest problem of them all. The Quantum Theory, I said to C Rex, would allow that that-upon-which-one-sits is both a Single Backside and a Dual Backside. In its Single Mode, it is a Unified Backside as commonly understood, even by fretful TEFL expert, Luxembourg Lizzie. In Dual Mode however, it is as much Two Twins, a Double and Conjoined Entity, as it is a single Lone Child of Nature.

“It’s both, “I sighed victoriously to C Rex.”It’s both Cousin Rex, don’t you see? And isn’t that so inordinately liberating, and I trust you understand that we are talking about more than fucking backsides at this point?”

Exhausted by my taxing lucubrations, I suddenly fell asleep, as if I were only another infant and orphan like  Billy Bob. But just as I nodded off,  I could swear that all of a sudden Cousin Rex opened his mouth and yawned at me, with let us say a depthless yet indifferent expression. And, then would you believe, the little melancholy hermit anchorite, orphan son of selfless St Maud of the Cyclades, opened his whiskery mouth and uttered in a quiet but very human voice what appeared to be something on the lines of prophecy.

What he said he said first in Greek and then in an immediate English translation(I will render an accurate composite) was this: “You are just talking like a fool through your kollo (arse), vre (mate)…”

And with that, he curled up at the side of Billy Bob, and the pair of them slept the sleep of the fabled Gods.