Last year a hardworking fiction student of mine in her early fifties, who didn’t know the Greek alphabet, looked at her breakfast Lurpak butter pat which had in capitalised Greek, BOYTEIPO. Transliterated, this reads as vouteiro, which is obviously close to the English word ‘butter’. Eventually she turned pensively to me, and asked why it was called Botty Po. Of course I fell about considerably, if only because ‘po’ is a quaint and antiquated word for ‘pisspot’, and the association of that and the baby-talk word for backside, is bound to be entertaining, especially when is has nil linguistic foundation whatever. Ditto an intelligent elderly Englishman back in the UK, who looking at my website, noted the capitalised MEPIXAS, meaning Merihas, the port of Kythnos, and blithely pronounced it Mepichas. Of course the teaching of Classical Greek vanished from state schools a long time ago, and they more or less bound and gagged the hopeless teacher at my Grammar School aka The Brothel on the Hill, when the highest mark for the end of year Fourth Form exam was 4%. They left him to his cheerful and innocuous sinecure of RE master, because as everyone knows Religious Education is usually taught by mind- and often soul-free PE teachers, as for some highly esoteric reason there would seem to be a correlation between sweaty physical exercise, rugby, hockey and Devotional Spirituality.

Nonetheless I would bet both Mrs Botty Po and Mr Mepichas, did Maths and Physics up to O level, and hence knew a few Greek letters like pi, rho, mu, nu, theta and more. The common fantasy abounds though, that Modern Greek is difficult, because the script is difficult. As one who studied Sanskrit and Old Iranian, and had to learn the Devanagari script for the former, and the Avestan alphabet for the latter…let me assure you that the script is laughably the least of it, absolutely nothing. Once you have mastered the Sanskrit Devanagari alphabet you immediately have to master the rules of Sandhi or Euphony. Basically every single word in Sanskrit has to euphonise, or fit sonorously and gracefully, with every other. So the final letter of any word, has to euphonise sweetly with the initial letter of the next. In case you are feeling bogged down, think cheerfully of ‘cats’ and ‘dogs’ and note that the first one has an ‘s’ pronounced as aspirant  ‘s’. The word ‘dogs’ though has its ‘s’ pronounced as ‘z’. The ‘z’ euphonises with the palatal  ‘g’ just as the ‘s’ of cats fits harmoniously with the dental ‘t’. So this is euphony or notional ‘English sandhi’ within a word, unlike the Sanskrit where it is all finals and initials.

Hence Sanskrit tat-sarah, but tad-bhaya and tan-maya, where I have put in my own hyphens to make things clearer. In the first, the  final dental ‘t’ of tat harmonises with initial aspirant ‘s’, next the final ‘t’ changes to ‘d’ to harmonise with initial ‘bh’ and finally tat becomes tan where the ‘n’ is nasalised to harmonised with initial labial ‘m’. There are 51 Sanskrit  Devanagari letters, and if they are final letters, they all have to harmonise with the following initial letters, vowels included, when usually the two words fuse (hence sa eva becomes euphonised saiva). So with 51 letters, imagine 51 x 51 variables or no less than 2551 sandhi rules.  And note that this is all just about linguistic sound effects, and we haven’t even started on the grammar or vocabulary, or even a single page of the beautiful Hindu spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita.

Getting back to Greek, once you have mastered the easy-peasy alphabet, you need to understand the pronunciation. This means you have to get your tongue round some quaint and tortuous vowel diphthongs, that you simply do not get in English. For instance voithia meaning ‘help’ is pronounced ‘vo-ee-thee-ah’, and ‘you help’ is voitheisete or ‘vo-ee-theesa-tay’. Harder still and damn near impossible when you first try it,  is the word for ‘stories’ as in those of the great Alexandros Papadiamantis. It is diimata pronounced ‘thee-ee-ma-ta’. But most tourists and travellers including those who are Hellenophiles, never get this far. Sometimes they candidly admit they are no linguists, and it isn’t worth the effort. Other times they blame the Greek language, and by implication the eternally problematic and obstructive Greeks. About a year ago I was in discussion with an English tourist, a man in his sober eighties, who came out with a remarkable statement. He said that the first thing the Greeks needed to do, to be taken seriously as members of the EEC  was ‘to get rid of their Mickey Mouse alphabet’. Impossible to know where to start in dissecting this spectacular neo-imperialist bravado. Admittedly at 85 and being, he told me, born in 1929, he was old enough to remember the Indian Raj and the palmy days when we Brits ‘owned’ a quarter of the world. Yet there was something so mutedly hysterical about the way he wrote off a whole European nation, with its magnificent and inimitable classical culture, as all being pivoted and debased around the pejorative totem of a Walt Disney joke character. The alphabet he was mocking was that used by Aristophanes, Plato, Thucydides, Euripides, Socrates, and yet for him they were altogether of the risible flavour and quality of a cartoon mouse. The truth was of course, and I affably hinted to him as much, he was too lazy to learn the alphabet, much less have a stab at the language. Therefore he would blame the Greeks for impertinently disturbing his inner peace, by surrounding him with words he could not even read, much less understand.

We all know what the toughest languages are, the apparently unwieldy and seemingly impossible Finno-Ugrian ones. Take note of my qualifiers ‘apparently’ and ‘seemingly’. This is both to avoid the ethnocentric arrogance of the snooty old English tourist, and also to point out the obvious. You and me might choke and asphyxiate in the attempt to learn Hungarian or Basque, but the native people who speak it piss it out effortlessly, as if there is no tomorrow. It is not that the language is difficult, it is that we, us monoglot Brits, do not get round to breathing it day and night, and loving it with our hearts and souls. As well as Finnish and Hungarian, this language group includes Turkish, Estonian, Maltese and Basque. They all agglutinate, which means they glue up into very long words. Behold the lovely word Szekesfehervar, which is the name of a town in Hungary. It looks very pretty doesn’t it, the kind of word you would like to take home and have dinner with? You might even know a bit of Maltese, if you have read Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece V, where one of the Vs is Valletta, capital of Malta. Turkish likewise is full of big words. One you see everywhere on office fronts in Istanbul and copiously umlauted is mudurlugu. It means ‘management’.

Personally, I think it is onomatopoeic and expresses everything I have ever thought about management in all its guises. Mudurlugu. ‘Mud and glue’, geddit? My instincts are not only far left, but also good old-fashioned syndicalist anarchist. We don’t need leaders and hierarchies, we need ‘syndicalist coordinators’ who aren’t interested in hierarchy or personal power. Imagine a world where absolutely no one tried to exercise hierarchical power over any other person, including pisswise parents over their innocent children. In lieu of power there is this thing called democratic tolerance and even respectful love. Of course you say that’s all very well, but. Yes of course. Yes. Yes of course.



One of the quaintest things about visiting Portugal for the first time in 1981, was the remarkable noises you heard from every adult’s, and I mean absolutely every adult’s throat. I never understood what the verb ‘to hawk’ really meant, till Annie and I went to what was to become one of our favourite and happiest destinations. 34 years later I’m not sure whether things have radically changed, and I recall as late as 2002, Annie struggled to enjoy her delicious and bargain fish lunch on our celebratory last day, after that wonderful Christmas we spent in the Algarve capital, accompanied by 13 year-old Ione and her bosom pal Maria. The reason was the adjacent  table had three middle-aged Portuguese men violently and resonantly clearing their throats at virtuoso staggered intervals, and be assured they didn’t even know they were doing it. As I recall, Annie left half her wondrous salmonetes or red mullet, as she imagined even the stone dead fish might have been disgusted by the infernal laryngeal string quartet a few feet away. Don’t worry though, I polished off her mullet, and as fair deal let her have most of the wine, very nice vinho branco from the handsome and blindingly white Alentejo marble town of Borba. In case you hadn’t guessed, apropos my absent daughter and her friend, it was  a fearful and mind-stretching 1pm = bloody old Dawn, yuk, yuk, and Ione and Maria were just turning over in their extremely rancid unmade beds, for a proper and full-on restorative sleep.

I think I experienced the throat music at its boldest and starkest, in central Faro, again back in 1981. Both Annie and I adored Faro, especially the old and dusty and oh so poetically tender backstreets, which at night have their ochre brickwork turned into something akin to ancient Rome, or some other hallowed and magical  metropolis. On this occasion though, it was broad daylight, Annie was shopping for presents, and I was strolling  amiably along a main thoroughfare in delightful hot sunshine. I dawdled and lit a cigar, something I only ever do on holiday, and in fact I haven’t smoked a single stogie since about 2001. I happened to be standing next to a bus stop, and the only person anywhere near me was a young, very well-dressed woman in a smart blue business suit. She looked like an ambitious and assertive bank manager, and her hairdo and make-up and everything else were very precise and impressive. I dawdled there sucking away at my puro with my back to her, when suddenly there was the rawest and loudest hawk, hoick, hyeuk you have ever heard in your life. I jumped, and took an oblique and ingenious private detective glance, and saw her handsome throat muscles moving ferociously, as conclusive proof it was Mrs Bank Manager here who sounded like 20 competitive Irish navvies clearing their clogged up baccy throats back around 1876. I blinked my amazement, but very evidently she didn’t even notice me, nor was she remotely aware that she had made that hideous tonsular racket. Then to complete the finale, and make my heart leap with a certain perverse joy, she pursed her handsome lips and leisurely spat a bolus of saliva onto the pavement beside me. She had eloquently gozzed, she had emphatically gobbed, God bless her, the bonny lady bank manager had gone and poicked like an indifferent  farm labourer after he has just received his meagre wages back in 1924 in let’s say Wyre Piddle, Shipston on Stour, or Moreton in the Marsh.

A bit of sociology would not go amiss at this point. In 1981 Portugal had only been free of Fascism for 7 years, and ditto for Greece. A little thought would tell us that under Mediterreanean Fascism, there was not a lot of medical or social provision for the poor and the needy, as all too clearly it smacked of socialism. In 1981, way up north in the incomparable Tras Os Montes, there were still remote fluvial villages without  any kind of bridge to the other side of the river, and to other communities. Hence on the train to Braganca from Porto, we saw villagers who were pulling themselves across by rickety makeshift buckets and pulleys, as in the bloody old Stone Age. It seems to me by extrapolation, we are now in the equivalent of impoverished working class English culture circa 1937, when the trains and buses all had prominent signs saying No Spitting. Apart from the very real threat of TB infection, people like coalminers and anyone who worked in dusty factories, had an urgent need of clearing their throats or otherwise feeling as if they were choking. By analogy Portugal emerging from the ugly stagnation of Fascism still had the Shakespearean or medieval social manners which permitted throat clearing, and plenty of other evidence of the body as something very real, not just a polite suit of Western European clothes inhabited by a deferential ghost.

It’s a nice theory, but alas it is all too likely bollicks. In Greece, even in remote and tiny Kythnos, they do not as a rule clear their throats at stentorian volume. You will be as pleased as I am, to learn that the island has only one throat-hawker, and he is sat opposite me now, harking and crarking away as reliably as a 1000 day clock marks the mystical passage of time. He is called Mano and is probably about 67 or 68. He is a fisherman and a bit of a loner, though he has a wife and very good-looking  young daughter, who works in a craft shop in Loutra. He comes in the Glaros twice a day about 12am and 5pm, and consumes three very large glasses of white wine, and never drinks anything else. He is short on risible discursiveness, and each time as he leaves, croaks fevgo, which is absolutely unimpeachable and devastatingly existentially accurate, as it means ‘I am leaving’. He is bald and lean and rather shrivelled now, and he does not dress in style, but you can see he was once a very handsome man. His subtle and shy turquoise eyes are the give-away, and his daughter Sofia aged 20 is very beautiful. I have never met his wife, but likely she stays at home when he is out at the Glaros, so she can savour a hawk-cum-crawk-free hour or two.

The Glaros is a brisk and rough man’s kafeneion,  so if there is going to be any unrestrained hawking, belching or riotous  farting, here is where it would happen. How pleasing to relate that even when the three women who run the place are absent shopping down the village, the men are all as polite and decorous as peripatetic music teachers, at least when it comes to crude body noises. I have been going in there for 18  months virtually every day, and have yet to descry a single belch, a lone fart, a horrible hawking other than Mano’s. You maybe know that farting socially, as it were, is the most hideous thing an Arab can contemplate, so much so that to celebrate its exquisite rarity, The Arabian Knights has a story titled The Historic Fart. A man flees his wedding after loudly breaking wind there, and almost dying of shame, but returns 10 years later to his hometown where his nuptial flatulence has become so wondrously legendary, it is used to date all other events.

I am all of 64, and I can think of only one person I know who always farted publically and frequently, and in all companies, and without a trace of guilt, and without any sense of farce or buffoonery or devilment. He was called Dick Reed, and he was a very clever man with unusual and recondite literary and philosophical interests, a natural autodidact if ever there was. He left Cambridge in 1972 with a good degree in English, and failing to find a suitable job, took employment as a hospital porter, where he was the only one in his profession who spent his lunch breaks reading the entire oeuvre of Dostoievsky and Nietzsche. He was a bachelor all his life, though clearly he would have liked it to be otherwise. His presentation to the world was jovial and mannered and theatrical and ironical, but unfortunately he lived in an area where pirouettes and postures like those, went sailing over most people’s heads. By way of mitigation, in the town centre pubs, he talked the local dialect as best as he could, to try and be one of the boys, and of course that didn’t work either. He was living with his elderly parents in a large rambling house, and you could tell he was busting more than anything, even more than for Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard or even good old Graham Greene, for a nice little sweet little local girlfriend.

But sad to say, without any chronic medical condition, he farted and farted and farted, and the women stayed away in epic quantities. In an earnest public house one to one, with the likes of me, about say The Brothers Karamazov or the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, he would lift his leg and loudly fart and that was that, take it or leave it. If attempting to talk to a pretty girl in the same pub, he would beam and noisily fart, and she would pretend that he hadn’t, and before long move away at speed. Only once someone confronted him about his singular and challenging habit, and he huffed and puffed, but did not blush, and said it was a perfectly natural body function. I was present and couldn’t resist informing him, that so was the act of defecation, but most people, even the most uproarious, did not do that over Kaffeklatsch or as part of energetic and even ribald table talk.

For once he had nothing to say, and got up and left the pub, and he was audibly farting as he left. He had a copy of Notes from the Underground inside his capacious anorak pocket, and really it seemed to jig up and down to the cadences of his defiant and you might say altogether revolutionary farting.



Most of Kythnos’s Albanians come from one small town in the north of the country, Dibra. No one can explain why this is the case, but it is almost as if by word of mouth recommendation. There are a few Kythniot Shiptars from Tirana, and two young men who are brothers from nearby Elbasan of the notorious reputation. This by the way goes to show that you should never take guide books at face value. Under communism the outskirts of Elbasan were polluted by many ugly factories, but the city itself is a gem. It has fine atmospheric streets like Qemal Stafa and Nentori, with venerable but well preserved old dwellings, and a truly lovely mosque that dates back to 1492, called Xhamia e Mbretit or King’s Mosque. Elbasan has some very fine restaurants, where my standby of grilled vegetables (perime zgare) puts the tolerable Greek version to shame. I also ate delicious and copious fresh fish in the coastal resort of Himara, where there is a substantial Greek-speaking minority. Pretty Himara, as well as the movingly handsome little town of  Dhermiu (Dhrimades in Greek), look across to the remote but inhabited Dhiapondia Islets off Corfu (in Albanian, Corfu is Corfuz, such a perfect name). In fact when Ione and I decided to holiday together in 2013, at first we intended 10 days in either Othoni, Mathraki or Erikoussa islets. The names themselves are enough to get you booking your ticket to party island Corfu, and then fucking off as fast as you can due north to take the boat to these tiny communities. But then we did some sums and calculated that budgetwise 10 days even in minuscule Othoni, Greece = 30 days in Albania. We both like very long holidays as opposed to the appalling micro-version, and our decision was instant.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe, everyone knows that. You maybe also know that certain pan-Hellenic zealots i.e. smirking nutcases, refer to the whole of Albania as North Epirus, meaning just a rogue part of dear old Greece, and when we have the time we shall come and take you back again to our darling bosom. I was absolutely delighted and much amused, when a year ago I met the Albanian nationalist counterpart of these perfervid chauvinists. A bunch of roving electricians, all of them Albanians, were going round several of the Cyclades laying cables, and were drinking themselves brainless in the Glaros one night. There were four of them, and about forty beer bottles on their double table. One of them knew a bit of English, and as well as inviting me to their table informed me that Greek Epirus was actually a rogue part of glorious and incredibly prosperous Albania (so many Mercedes Benzes, and four storey mansions with luxurious pools in every town!)and that in due course the invincible Shiptars would reclaim Ioannina and turn it into a proper Albanian metropolis.

As for Albanian poverty we saw it at its rawest in the outskirts of Shkoder, the capital of the north. The crowds milling on the broken pavements were dirty, badly dressed, and the ferocious yet melancholy mayhem around them at some ugly little food market, was indescribable. Likewise when a taxi driver took us to the Rustan and Germahala mosques on the outskirts of Delvina, we saw what might have been an encampment of gypsies, or might have been simply the local paupers who couldn’t afford a house and decided to live in desolate and broken chicken sheds instead. The taxi we hired drove us round the Delvina outskirts for three and a half hours, and he charged us 1200 lek or about £7, meaning £2/hour. We assumed he was charging us more than he would locals, but I gave him  a 500 lek tip and still felt I was robbing him. Ditto re our stay in Delvina’s only accommodation. It had no sign indicating it was a hotel, and they had to go and fetch the old lady to let us in. We had a room each, both of them containing four beds, and two folded up couches possibly for entire football teams, and  no it wasn’t en suite, but that didn’t matter as we were the only guests (an irresistible digression here. I once booked an en suite room in an extremely dreary and characterless hotel in Maryport, Cumbria. Once arrived, I soon confronted the stony gadger at the desk, after I had discovered I had a washbasin but no toilet, meaning small hours parading bare arse to the landing bog. Guess what his oh so exquisitely West Cumbrian retort was? Ah yes, lad, it’s what you call [ I love that ‘you’] PARTIAL en suite).

In any event, our overnight stay cost us 3 euros each, or £2.35 a night, which  by my reckoning is the rate of an English B and B about 1973, or 40 years prior to 2013. But ironies abound. We stayed one night in the bleak but friendly Miredita town of Rreshen. The unemployment and poverty here are overwhelming, and the town itself could do with a bloody good scrub. It had two places to stay but neither of them were easy to locate. Then thanks to a senile and overbearing Kosovan holidaying nearby, and who had good German and insisted on helping us, we managed to book in the much uglier of the two. It was massive, cavernous, echoing, and felt exactly like a disused mental hospital.  Ione and I were obviously the only meek little paying guests for the last 20 years or so. Just as we were about to pay the old guy his pittance in advance, we realised that splendid Mr Helpful from Dusseldorf had driven off with all our luggage in his boot. Talk about panic stations and brick-shitting for the hard of hearing. By the faintest stroke of luck, when he had given us a lift into town, he had pointed out where he was staying, about a mile out on the Tirana road. We raced into a cafe and bullied an unemployed or maybe underemployed teacher, to drive us there at speed and retrieve all our gear. After a struggle we tracked down the old clown who wasn’t even apologetic, he just thought it rather a fine joke. I believe I cussed at him, and it might even have been in German. Did I really, could it really have been me who snarled Scheisskerl to a sweet old Kosovan man of late seventies?

There were two ironies very visible in Rreshen. One was that all the unemployed men were up and about, parading aimlessly from daybreak or about 5am. They had very little money to squander on coffee, so they just paced and paced, they of course  being in the larger mental hospital of unemployed Miredita, Ione and I being in the lesser institution that indeed we had had to pay to stay in. The other irony was that there were no less  than five splendid state of the art internet cafes in a town of 15,000, all of them serving perfect cappucino for 60p, and with brand new computers and headphones. Believe me, there isn’t a single 50 people hamlet in the whole of Albania isn’t well and truly online, and that includes far flung Kelmendi, bordering dreary old Montenegro, which I shall write about another time. But just to give a taster the small town of Plav in Montenegro is even drearier and soul-destroying  than bloody awful Aspatria (Spyatri in Cumbrian dialect) or hideously dead and alive Walkerburn near Peebles, Scotland.

In Tirana they go in for cosmetic dentistry in a big way, and lots of pampered foreigners come and take advantage of the cut price Italy-trained dental surgeons. They also practice their dentistry in public, meaning as you walk down to the groovy underground internet cafe, you can see through the plate glass window the patients wriggling in their chairs and all that is happening to them. I stood there gawking for a very long time indeed. In the cafe itself, as well as lovely computers by the dozen, are schoolkids of around 18, and the girls especially are beautifully and fashionably dressed, and their mobiles/cell-phones don’t look like they are made in Albania. They laugh and flirt with each other, the boys and girls, like they would anywhere else in Europe except maybe the Free Presbyterian Isle of Lewis, Scotland, where they even tie up the budgie’s swing on  the Sabbath. Meanwhile down the road is a pavement bookstall where they sell only one author, my hero and a man I actually once spent time with, Ismail Kadare, whose like will not be seen again.

Here is an Albanian proverb, and make sure you memorise it and amaze your friends.

No work, no money

It sounds better in Albanian.

Pa pune, pa pare (pronounced ‘pah’, ‘poo-nay’ and ‘pah-reh’)



One of the young Albanians who works in Loutra, was recently refused re-entry into Greece. His older brother Genc who has been here in Kythnos for 16 years, told us as much and looked very worried, though he didn’t seem to know why it had happened. Nor have I ever found out why the errant baby brother Jimi reappeared out of nowhere one day, beaming his vast and handsome smile and obviously glad to be back in God’s home country, Greece. Jimi, aged 26, has a good job with a Loutra travel agency as he happens to have a reasonable bit of hit and miss English. He struggles with the subjunctive and sometimes slips into the muddled future tense(‘will you look to view at the kurrengt timetable, sir, mister, missus’?) when he means the present, but he is nowhere in the same league as the amiable English teacher that Ione and I met in Kosovo in 2013. We had just arrived in Gjakova and were looking for a certain part of town, and the waiter in the restaurant, where we had just put away epic quantities of food, was trying to do his best. In strides to our rescue the short, squat, friendly, blond haired man of about 40, who explains he is an Albanian Shiptar, who teaches English, and indeed has TEFL equivalent qualifications.

“I was long qualified by external Cambridge,” he explained. “I teached every day in Unique English School, Gjakova, and also gave some private lessons. Where were you seeked? Let us gone a short way up there, where there was a better view of the city, and I can pointed it out to you. It wasn’t far.”

Where were you seeked? God this is so wonderful, I thought to myself, this is so bloody great! He is a Shiptar who teaches English, and maybe charges a fair rate of Kosovo euros for his services, and look he can only talk in the past tense! Bugger me,  I monologued silently, and turned to Ione, and told her, I wish I could only talk in the past tense. It would be such a joy with everything out of the way for once and all! None of this bastard present tense, where you don’t know what is going to bite you like a viper up the arse in five minutes time. As for the future, I snorted, that can be a real old horrifying can of worms, cat’s cradle, purulent and malodorous epic collection of anal warts writ large etc.

Kosovo is a wonderful country though nowhere near as remarkable as beautiful Albania. Part of the unexpectedness, is its relative prosperity, except perhaps for some of the neglected Serb villages, peopled only by the old and the sick and the embittered. The prosperity is down to hefty remittances from Kosovans working in Germany, many of whom retire to the homeland and build big and beautiful houses in the countryside, and generally live the life of Riley. However there is little love lost between the victorious Albanians, and the defeated and ghettoised Serbs. Our Gjakova hotel was close to the Carsija district, and you can still see the bullet marks and the charred wood and masonry, as evidence of the Serbian army torching the place. The Serbian army was gleefully genocidal, pure and simple, though many Kosovan Serbs had got on fine with their Albanian neighbours for decades. The fact remains that in the old communist Yugoslavia, the area of Kosovo, part of Greater Serbia, made on average a third per capita income of the rest of the country. What that means is they  were as poor as church mice. In 1982 Annie and I passed through a Kosovo town whose Serbian name is Urosevac. The main street didn’t even have a paved road, just a scratty, ugly dirt road, and as it had been raining, it was a filthy and incredibly dispiriting quagmire.

By contrast  Gjakova had the biggest and smartest bar I had ever seen in the whole world. It took up half a very long street, and I would estimate on its always busy nights, there were 500 kids at least sat around 200 tables. It was kids exclusively, plus me aged 62, who was you might say a very big kid, and proud of it. Within two minutes Ione had spotted the best looking lad among the 500 present, and had used her always flawless technique of going across and asking him for a light. She smoked in those days, and even though it didn’t do her health any good, it worked wonders for her love life, which I have to be frank about, and say I envied her enormously. I’d have loved to have effortlessly ‘copped off’ as is her favourite expression, though right enough in the month we were there in all those Balkan towns and villages, there were but few single and available Albanian or Kosovan females aged between 50 and 75, which are my two decidedly elastic outer parameters (be assured I would not have thrown away a night of tender romantic dalliance with a stunning 49 year-old Shkoder lass, or a ribald and voluptuous 76 year-old Permeti gal, or a swinging and carefree 103 year-old Prizren siren come to that).

By way of underlined emphasis, I  would like to add that I saw the most intensely desirable woman I have ever seen in all my life, selling cut-price hotdogs outside Durres railway station in Albania in May 2013. She was blond haired, about 45, doubtless married with three kids, but how can I put it those ample yet tapering hips of hers, were like gleaming golden firebrands to such as me sat sipping coffee, and unable to believe my goggling eyes, about ten yards from them. She had tight pink jeans which allowed you to see every contour and weft and weave and errant pimple on her glorious worthy-of-fifty-panegyric-stanzas Illyrian bottom, not that she had any pimples at all bless her, and she also wore a rather strange fluffy white woollen top, such as would have prevailed in Workington, West Cumbria on a rainy market day circa 1964. I permitted myself the equivalent of doing an Ione, by asking her in Albanian if I could take a photo of her and her hot dog business. I smirked to the extent of silently communicating, that if one of the two compositional elements had to be renounced, it would definitely be the hot dog stand. At any rate she guffawed and blushed and fluttered, then grabbed Ione and put her arms round her for a new and innocent study of Two Handsome Blond-Haired Women Beaming Outside Durres Railway Station. And I still think about her and her ramshackle hot dog stand about once a month at least….

Ione got her light from Gjakova’s Very Sexiest alright, and she also got a date. He was throwing a party that night about five miles away, and would pick her up from this bar at 8pm. I meanwhile could lachrymosely stay in my hotel, and possibly knit or learn Serbian, or how to excel at origami (qv morose and mordant 1950s Tony Hancock staying in alone in his London flat on Christmas Day, and reading Bleak House, by way of sentimental comfort). More impressive than that, this lad of maybe 28 actually owned the massive bar we were in,  meaning he must be one of the richest souls in Gjakova. So she, my genius of a daughter Ione, had not only scored an exquisite Kosovan Adonis, but a Massive Moneybags in Short Pants as well.

I was impressed, but envious, and even a tiny bit melancholy, as I saw that 62 year-olds, no matter which way you look at it, are not 23 year-olds like Ione. Then I looked at a really beautiful, sensitively dressed woman of about fifty parading majestically down Gjakova’s High Street, and I wondered something all to the purpose.  I wondered if, after 41 years, I should say ah to hell with it, and take up smoking fags again…



The other day here in Kythnos I was trying to remember the name of a certain type of autism. It wasn’t Tourette’s, but it was a foreign word and that’s as far as the brickwall of struggling memory took me. I could google autism and find out in 3 minutes of course, but I want perversely to remember it all on my own. But consider, if it takes me 3 days plus to remember it, even if I do recall it after all that time, what does that prove either way, given that if it were a matter of urgency I wouldn’t have the leisure of 72 hours to remember a single vital word? Why don’t I just give in and google? Answer, because I am an irrational and obstinate and extremely hidebound  eejit.

My  brother Bryce aged 70 has three homes. One in Crete, one in Cumbria, and one in Cambs, UK. I wonder then was it deliberate he chose areas in the world all starting with C, and if it had been Z would it have been Zaire, Zennor (Cornwall)and what else in the UK starts with a Z? Fuck it, I can’t remember (just asked someone by email and they mentioned  Zeals, Wilts. Fancy that, a UK town with a ‘Z’,  not Cornish. Blow me sideways, is all I can say to that). Brother Bryce has a prodigious memory when it comes to his specialist subject of accountancy, and all things financial. But he doesn’t have my bizarre and unusual skill, which is to be able to tell you what I was doing in say January 1969 (working on poxy Physics A level electronics, a curse on its gleeless memory. While we’re at it, one of the many things I hate about a lot of science and this includes Biology where of course reproduction is king, is that it wholly lacks the erotic, the sensuous and the voluptuous, whereas all arts subjects, including even bloody old Geography, have that working possibility), March 1975 (just moved to the remote Rheda area of Cleator Moor, Cumbria  from,  Cockermouth), December 1977 (very nice too what the two of us did together, though utterly deplorable in retrospect…) December 1986 (I think of the Panurge issue , no 6, that I was editing then. Also I can recall that particular Christmas and what it was like pace exquisite dalliance under the Christmas tree with Annie).

No, Bryce can’t do that month and date trick, nor can many other folk who are baffled by my peculiar associative memory. Some of them say they can’t remember what they did last week, and have to struggle to recall what they did yesterday. A fisherman aged 50 in the Glaros the other day, who doesn’t have a watch or a phone most of the time, turned to me and asked me in Greek what day it was. I thought and said Wednesday after about one second. He hadn’t a clue, and needed to be told. In fairness to him, all days feel the same in Kythnos i.e. excellent, even Sunday mornings, which back in Brampton, Cumbria mostly felt like a staggered and perpetual funeral procession.

But here is what Bryce can recall, and indeed so can I. We both did German at the Grammar School aka The Brothel On the Hill, and we both had to remember the list of prepositions that take the dative and the accusative cases. Bryce last studied German at school in 1960, when he was 16, and that is nearly 55 years ago. I last studied the language in 1967, when I was 16 and that is nearly 48 years ago. But Bryce can actually recite, nay sing them, and with his own special dance and lunatic squint eyes, like possibly some deranged Oberhauptsturmbannfuhrer as he leaps about the room and mutters:

aus bei mit nach zu seit von gegenuber ausser! (dative)

durch ohne fur gegen wider um (accusative)

There are also the ones that take both cases depending on whether there is motion(accusative) or stasis (dative). So Ich gang zwischen die Hauser ( I went between the houses) and Ich stand zwischen den Hausern (I stood between the houses). It’s a pity I can’t find the elusive umlaut function on this bloody laptop, but alas I cannot. Google it methavrio. OK, boss. And come to think of it, boss, you could have used Gothic script for the German, and that would have been nice for your wonderful, quite adorable blog readers too, boss. Eh? Ah kiss my ass, my so called and very titular pal, and inner voice of conscience. Also why do you use the vocative case quite so fawningly, with your boss, boss, boss? More interesting to me, my good man, and I’m sure to them also, is why the accusative should indicate motion, and the dative stasis. Here’s a brilliant theory I shall now, wassaword, toss off, and no don’t make the obvious puerile gag, plus remember the term ‘intellectual masturbation’ is a) a cliché and b)meaningless. Listen closely. I always think of the dative as the posher of the two, partly because dative comes from the Latin word ‘to give’. To give, often you have to be richer and posher than the recipient, geddit? Uhuh, sounds grade A specious bollicks to me, boss, and in any case what’s it got to do with motion and stasis? Well, motion often implies lowly and anxious scurrying about, and stasis implies lordly sitting on your idle backside for evermore. Eh? I have never heard such preposterous and third form drivel, mine master, and I thought you were a man of integrity and it is very hurtful to be your far-sighted superego, or am I maybe your id, and to learn that you are frankly not.

Around twenty years ago, it annoyed me so much that I couldn’t remember the capital of Slovakia without lengthy cudgelling of my brains, that I pinned it on a bit of paper above my desk. I had a special interest in Bratislava because that is there Sunk Island had my novel Radio Activity printed in 1993. Far worse than that, was back in summer 1989, when Ione was a only a few weeks old, and Annie and I were sharing the small hours baby care. Incidentally, I can do a lot of things, but even I cannot breast feed, though in fairness I have never actually tried. Also parenthetically I can’t be only one to wonder why a man has tits/nipples in the first place, what bloody use are they to man or mammon? Regardless, the net result of all that broken sleep was that, more dramatically in me than in Annie, my grasp of words became altogether less than their usual fluency. Part of this deficiency led me into the highly dangerous area of spoonerism. For example, I found a white-haired bespectacled electrician to wire in our new cooker, and his name was Bill Cussons. The first day I introduced him to Annie I cried, “Meet Mr Bull Kissens!” Luckily Bull/Bill was hard of hearing but he still didn’t understand why my wife was shaking with massively repressed shoulder merriment.

Even worse on Christmas Eve 1989, still short of sleep, and  lying awake in bed in beautiful Hethersgill, North Cumbria, I was wrestling with the following daunting epistemological poser:

What do you call the generally round object on a door, that also being the item with which you open it?

I simply couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember it the previous day either, and had resorted to lunatic periphrasis when addressing Annie. The thing on the door, you know and you take it and shove and it opens it. Annie herself was so bog-eyed with baby care, she didn’t even notice her husband was talking in bizarre and borderline schizoid parsing terms. Then on Christmas Day, instead of Santa Claus flying down the chimney at pitch black 1 in the morning, it was me shot up in bed excitedly and cried aloud:

“ It’s door knob! Its fucking door knob, Annie!”

And of course I woke up both her and Ione, and Ione who had taken two hours to get over, started to cry, the way small babies will. Luckily she has mostly laughed ever since…



Yesterday I went with a friend to the spa village of Loutra, to see the annual Carnival. As it happened, we comprehensively failed to see it, though we saw plenty of everything else. The non-seeing of the Carnival was partly our fault and partly the fault of Loutra. As it is such a big event, all the shops, including gift shops and ceramic shops, were open all day, whereas the average February Sunday, and even more so of a weekday, you are lucky to get anything open apart from a church or hallowed white chapel. Most disappointingly not a single restaurant was open, including the all-purpose standby of old Margarita’s. Margarita must be in her late eighties, is not over-endowed with teeth (qv the excellent Dublinism, ‘not killed with teeth’), has a kind and tired face, and trembling hands, which somehow manage to cart the mayirefta dishes one at a time without spilling anything, and more crucially the teeming jug of white wine. In fact she opened the door for us specially, and was otherwise closed. All she had was fasoladha bean stew, which is very nice but we both wanted chips, as one does when one is in festive mood. I would also have paid a king’s transom for her aubergine imam, with its sweetly melting eggplants and faintest flavour of allspice and a little cinnamon. Greeks are prone to kill everything with excessive cinnamon, especially the ones who open up Italian restaurants and would put cinnamon in the tomato salad, and in the jug of bloody wine if they could get away with it. I once told Margarita that I had been coming regularly to Greece since 1972, and had countless imams, and hers was certainly the best, and was the stuff of legendary Greek myth as far as I was concerned. She smiled  and chuckled of course at my ad hoc and barely intelligible panegyric in Greek, and showed me her many missing teeth.

She was closed she said because it was Carnival Day. Everything works the opposite way round in Greek islands, so a special day meant that everyone dined at home festively in family mode, before the Carnival kicked off.  No one could agree on the time it started. Most said somewhere between 3 and 4, while others reckoned early evening. Given it was going to be pitch dark by 6, it did not give much latitude for any street frolics or musical panjandrum, where Health and Safety might have had a civic interest. But as I have mentioned earlier, many Greeks do not believe in Health and Safety, they believe in having a good time and bugger the odd accident, graze or hideous gash. Meanwhile we were starving and I prevailed upon Ria at the zakharoplasteio cake shop to make us omelette and chips. She hesitated as one does if one runs something not a restaurant. It is technically a criminal offence to serve full meals if you don’t have a restaurant licence. This is no joke in otherwise tolerant Greece where regularly off duty island policemen drive motorbikes minus the obligatory helmet (their colleagues in the Cyclades capital on Syros come down to Kythnos, and make regular spot checks for errant motorcyclists. They then fine them astronomically and five years later those fines have yet to be paid). But Joanna in the Hora, a friend of mine who runs a kafeneion, had an arch foe in the form of the competitive kafeneion owner two doors down. That arch foe rang the police to say that the witch Joanna was flagrantly serving x plus chips, and breaking the law, and half an hour later Joanna was handcuffed and taken to the police station. Nothing came of it of course, but it was the same thing happened when she let the Pakistani Arzul sell his pirated CDs inside her place. She didn’t know they were pirated and Arzul’s Greek was as bad as his anomalously atrocious English. As convincing example, without a trace of irony he always calls the port of Merihas, AMERIKHA, and given that in full seasonal bustle, it does feel a bit like a miniature Miami, I found this concept touching if not a trifle touched. Anyway by the time the arch foe had got the police to come round, and arrest both pirate and Joanna, the pirate had sailed off in his doubloon and James Last and Vassilis Tsitsanis loaded galleon to Loutra, and has evaded a caution much less arrest ever since. Meanwhile Joanna was handcuffed yet again and thereafter she banned Arzul from her cafe, and for once it was not at all about any notional katharevousa-style racism…

Ria made us perfect cheese omelettes and chips, and sprinkled the latter with tasty oregano. The only wine she had was ntopio red, the homemade insecticide which tastes exactly like stale black tea into which someone has pissed. Greeks love the very potent self-made bilge and swig it in preference to proper stuff. They sometimes take a gallon inside four plastic bottles into the Glaros, and pay for the lavish mezze snacks, but of course have the booze for free. They are always giving you a bottle with a beaming felicity, and one always beams back and then tips it down the sink and watches it fizz like bleach(ST + Ur = 3Cl25, or Stale tea plus Piss = Chlorinated Bleach) when one gets back to one’s private quarters…

Her entertaining husband Kostas was watching all this shady pirate criminal meal rigmarole with much  approval. When Ria went uptown, he gave us a conspiratorial smirk and took a pack of 20 Marlboro out of a vase. As anyone else would have concluded, under his wife’s aegis he was supposed to be giving up the tabs and therefore hiding them from bossy old Ria. Yet when she finally returned, he was flagrantly and fearlessly still puffing away, so we never understood the vase and the Crackerjack mime show. He had lit up about three inches from our omelette and chips, and exhaled with pure delight into our wine. In the end he had sauntered off to the supermarket and bought us four small airline bottles of white, which more or less tripled the bill, though of course that was not his intent. I was foreign and therefore quasi-posh, so deserved the star treatment. Kostas is the only person  on Kythnos who has ever asked me to informally teach him English. God knows why he might want to learn it, as he rarely leaves Loutra and his Minus 5 star Holiday Shack at Mamako, aka the Cycladean Antarctic. Wishing to make the best of his star comic potential as well as his no doubt limitless linguistic flair, I decided once to get him to say ‘I Love You’ (S’agapao in Greek).

AH LOOF YI! Daxi, John?

ER LEWF YOG!(Mabinogion Welsh? wondered one)

(followed by his virtuoso Mandarin Chinese variant) HA LU FA!

Then he battered the side of his big hairy head as his Loutra teacher must have done to him back in 1964, when he said the capital of Italy was Luxembourg. Ah! he went in severe frustration, ah fuck, ah malakamalakmalakamalaka! and with each Greek punctuation mark = ‘wanker’, he battered home the lesson he then rapidly discontinued.

Afterwards my friend and I found a very smart bar which was almost empty. We had already gargled a fair bit of wine, and we decided seeing it was miragic even hallucinatory festival time, to go say South American or nay durn well Caribbean Cuban. We had a Captain Morgan piratical black rum each with my favourite lacing of a modicum of peach juice. Irresistible. We had, you’ll possibly be interested to learn, three each, all standard Greek quadruples, and suddenly felt what’s the word, pissed. Three young guys were jamming rembetika in the corner, and did so for hours with no sign of being about to perform this side of 2025. After our three rums we walked back in interesting staggered ellipses in the dark and caught a passing taxi home. We had completely forgotten we had come here to see the Carnival, and in any case it still hadn’t started.




A couple of Christmases ago Ione my daughter came to stay on Kythnos, and brought an old university friend with her, let’s call him Ted. Ted was a very interesting, very unusual and highly original young man of 26. He was a playground worker in a big northern city, and he was excellent at his job, working with the toughest and most deprived of deviant kids, and having a genuine sympathy and understanding of their ways. Part of his talent at the job, was that he was a very playful guy himself, and you could say his whole life was devoted to various forms of playfulness. As part of this ‘ludic’ versatility, he had a very advanced understanding of all things crude, startlingly obscene and sometimes downright outrageous. Some of the things he did and imagined (and mostly he did, no matter how risk-taking, what he zestfully imagined) would make Rabelais look like Godfrey Wynn, or a member of a TV Songs of Praise congregation, the one with the extremely daft and outsize hat that only an amiable churchgoing lady of 62 would wear, her there on the extreme right(in more ways than one) at the front.

As part of his armoury of eccentricity, he would as a student economise by buying in a whole academic year’s bargain food at the local Aldi. He would purchase say 100 tins of tomatoes, 30 bottles of soya sauce, 100 tins of very cheap processed peas (they might even have been free or possibly Aldi paid Ted to take them away), 100 packets of Chinese noodles, and so forth. His stand-by economy supper after a hard day of not doing his assigned essay, might be noodles, soya sauce, peas and epic quantities of HP tomato ketchup, just to give it a really astringent and memorable flavour. Once, in keeping with his Rabelaisian excess, he drank, one after another, 15 two litre bottles of Aldi Iron Brew and had to be hospitalised, as his whole system went truly electric. At the time he had a girlfriend who he had picked up at a dance when very drunk, and the next day in cold daylight he decided, he told me, she was very overweight, remarkably unattractive and inconceivably  boring. Nevertheless, as he explained, she was good at giving him his ‘bloody old egg’, along with every very lurid, very eggy variation that he demanded, and that was certainly not to be sneezed at. Their relationship ended when she took seriously ill at her own home in the small hours, and also had to go into hospital. She rang Ted wailing piteously and begged him to come round and go with her. Ted who was groggy from sleep and about a litre of Polish vodka consumed while watching 20 back to back episodes of the legendary and first rate Breaking Bad (which Ted always called Breaking Wind) old Ted was only being diamond honest, when he said to her over the phone:

“I can’t be arsed. I’m warm in bed and cosy, and I just can’t be arsed. I’m going back to sleep now. Ring me tomorrow. Mebbe.”

Cue volcanic grief at the other end and her exclaiming.”What? Can’t be what? Ted you cannot be saying that.”

But he was and that was that. He also had a penchant for extreme practical jokes as well as small but ingenious ones. Of the latter, when Ione left her student car one afternoon to go and buy some fags, she left another pack containing only three on the dashboard. Ted and his pal Whizzo, a long haired and very brilliant physics PhD, were sat in the back playing cards, but when Ione returned and took out a cigarette from the old pack, she saw that Ted more likely than Whizzo, neither of whom smoked, had written a little message on each of the three cigarettes in Ione’s handy red biro. One said I IS FUCKING BAD 4 U, the second said I LIKE HARY WILLIES  and the third said GOOD OLE MASTERBASION (yes it was definitely dyslexic Ted).

But that little bagatelle was hardly in the same league as his masterly execution of Top Decking, a practice of which I had never heard, and took some time to comprehend, in its unusual and incredibly perverse ingenuity. Top Decking, as Ted clarified it for me on Kythnos in December 2013, is something you inflict on your enemy just as you are about to leave his or her house. You sneak into their possibly immaculate bathroom and carefully take off the lid of the toilet cistern. You then if you are Ted clamber on the toilet seat, remove your trousers and underwear, and turn your vast and hairy backside above the open cistern. You then defecate at full steam as it were into the same cistern. When your gentleman or lady foe next flushes the toilet, they will see a lurid, torrid, viscid and truly horrid stream of excrement filling up their toilet. It is a totally reverse ontological experience. Normally you flush away a smiling posy of brown turds, and in their place achieve pristine whiteness and innocence. But in the Top Decking variation, you flush away your light yellow urine, and get a free bowlful of for some reason hideous and mangled coal black dung. It is enough to make you shit a brick, commented Ted thoughtfully, and the experience will repeat itself many times depending how large the Top Decking Pirate Turd was in the first place.

Stepping back a little from these Vandalic and definitely Gothic antics, he once accompanied another girlfriend, one indeed whom he quite liked, to the hospital, where she was sadly about to have an abortion. Ted brought along quiet and shy to the point of total silence Whizzo, for extra if wholly mute moral support for Beryl, as she was called (Ted affably addressed her as ‘Barry’ for the six months they were partners). The two moral supporters got hungry about three minutes after Beryl had gone into surgery, and Ted promptly rang for a delivery pizza. Behold the ire of the matron when one of her harassed nurses attending some emergency procedure was obliged to go through the very long ward bawling Who the hell is Ted bloody Lancaster who ordered this bloody family size pizza?

It was in the oh so trifling and insignificant matter of Sex, that Ted really got his fecund brain working in extraordinary ways. Someone had given him a copy of Dictionary of Urban Slang and he was very much riveted by the chapter which defined and explained Sexual Positions and Practices, and immediately asked the far too fat and incalculably boring girlfriend, if she would care to try some of them out. No problem, in her case she could definitely be arsed, and certainly febrile night-long sex up her twitching colossal behind was the least of it. Ted, always the improviser and innovator, invented his own florid sexual practices and far outdid ancient Indians Vatsyayana and Kokkoka, authors respectively of the Kama Sutra and the Ratirahasya (Secrets of Love). One of these he called Chuff Buttering,  and for once I will be shy, and let you work that one out on your own. Be aware literal butter (salted or unsalted, it matters not a whit) was definitely a part of it and that ‘chuff’ was a bawdy noun not an adjective.

But we are building up to the finale of the ‘Abraham Lincoln’ erotic practice, and again this was wholly Ted’s invention. It involved once again the lachrymose and obese girlfriend, who was wonderfully pliant at attempting all sexual athletics and dance steps, no matter how bizarre. So much so, that I said to Ted half way through his compelling story, surely she couldn’t have been that boring if she let him do the Abraham Lincoln?

Behold the Abraham Lincoln. The transcendentally dull lady is stripped naked and enormous in the bedroom. Enter Ted Lancaster beaming and also bare arse nude. He has both hands slyly behind his back which ought to be a kind of clue to what follows. He is also visibly and throbbingly tumescent, and by his own modest admission reasonably well-hung. At  once they set to a variety of orthodox sexual motions, front face to face, then her with her elephantine bottom turned to him, he on his back and she on top of him, he the while panting a mite at the force of gravity that she transmits so well in her plenitude and epic amplitude. Whatever he had secreted behind his back, had been craftily stored somewhere to the side, underneath a magazine or a book perhaps.  They then shuffled so that he stayed flat on his back, but she changed direction with her lower half over his head and mouth, and her face turned to his jigging and polka-ing Little Master Malcolm. By this means she is able to render him lustful comfort via the mouth, and he likewise something but not necessarily what you would call comfort, by his capacious gob. His hands also have drum practice access to her phenomenal backside, and he plays a kind of ingenious rallentando on each buttock in delayed and complex staggered synchrony. She loves that bongo bashing on her lickle teeny botty, as she sweetly calls it, and demands that it be faster and harder, and that it be pulsing and ascending and climactic musical accompaniment to their fast approaching twin orgasms.

Ted did as ordered percussion-wise to her heaving Gargamelle bottom, until they were both close to the joyous finale. He then unceremoniously used every atom of strength to push her away from him, and as he said to me solemnly in 2013, she nearly accidentally bit his Little Master Malc off at the transmitted impulse. So yes, he threw her away from him in violently discarding fashion,  in such a way, that she more or less bounced into the corner of the bedroom, to lie there gurgling and mewing and ooh-ahing. He then commanded her to stand up sharpish, and get ready for the Abraham Lincoln, something of whose fanciful identity she still hadn’t the faintest clue.

So there she was, naked and red and with breasts as big as karpoussi melons, and of about the same flaming rubescence, the only thing missing was the numerous small black pips. Ted then approached her, and at the critical climactic point succeeded in dousing her with a certain historically familiar body fluid, and succeeded even more, in that he got it precisely where he wanted it to be, exactly around the chin area. She had no less than three stout chins, God love her, but it was the top one he aimed for, and the top one so it would impressively be.

Usually when Ted came to the summit of ecstasy, he told me, he would cry in a loud voice BOMBS AWAY! This time he cried something different, though admittedly it was also expressed as two words and no  more. He had retrieved the mysterious item from underneath its hiding place, and held it neatly in his right hand. Had the very ample and very dull young woman examined him down below, she would have seen that like many a faddish youth nowadays, he had shaved his homely private parts to rawness. The results of that shaving were screwed up like a tiny bird’s nest, maybe like a wren’s, in his sizeable right hand. He opened the hand and swiftly flung its contents, his pubic hair, onto his best beloved’s very sticky and adhesive chin. She now had a beard as well as her three chins. She now looked the spitting image, so Ted confirmed to me, of the great man himself.

And what was it he shouted at full volume, in lieu of Bombs Away! You’ve guessed, it, like a true old style Yankee patriot, he bawled out to the stunned and mystified ether, AY-BRA-HAM LING CUN..!.

And those last two syllables have a certain associative ring about them, have they not?