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?


‘POP OFF AND BOUNCE’(sung to the tune of Ball Off and Bounce)

(you can always contact me direct at

Guess what is the most powerful and humiliating insult, that any Greek man can fling at another? I asked a UK woman friend of mine this, and she swiftly suggested ‘son of a purulent whore’ or ‘whelp of a syphilitic whore who is a gangrenous female donkey’ pace the kind of 5 star insults about mothers and incest and copulation that Indians love to hurl at their enemies. No. Not at all and after four different guesses, I told her, no, the worst thing a man can call another man in Greece is a TAMPON! (aka Tampax or Lillette). She was much amused, and later we tried to work out why it is quite so insulting for any Hellenic male. I myself, if someone called me a Tampax, would have to struggle very hard to feel insulted. Instead it would only make me think of women having headaches and tension, and my feeling good and  sorry for them. I reckon the insult lies in the old fashioned autopilot misogyny that still affects a substantial number of Greek males. Like giggling pubertal boys, they do not like the idea of women bleeding for any reason, and less still the object that stanches the blood. It is a puerile and unreformed mentality, but I’m sure that’s where the insult’s venom lies.

Words can be very powerful things, and can both elevate and denigrate, ennoble and destroy. They can also be just plain irritating. I was much amused by the story from a no-nonsense woman student of mine back in 2000, when I was teaching a summer fiction residential in Cambridge, UK. The woman, let’s call her Joan, was 66 and had recently been in hospital where she had had a mastectomy, lymph node clearance, and subsequent chemotherapy for breast cancer. She could endure all that well enough, traumatic as it had been, but it was the attitude and vocabulary of the female nursing staff had driven her up the wall. In the end she had to tell them to stop, or they would need to transfer her to the mental ward, and no one wanted that, did they? The nurses and even the auxiliary assistants, could not lay off the verb ‘pop’ in all its many and glorious avatars. Before I give one of Joan’s examples, I need to maybe warn US and Canadian readers that perhaps the verb has no currency at all in their countries. But just in case, as is perfectly feasible, they ever end up in a British hospital, here is the verb that conquers all others, and which, if it is the only word you speak of English, like malaka in Greek, it can take you everywhere.

Sample dialogue from cheery 30 year-old Peterborough nurse. “So we’ll pop this nightie on you, darling. Then we’ll pop you down to x rays, sweetheart,  and you can pop inside the cubicle and they’ll get you to pop another special gown on for x ray. Mm, you’d better pop to the toilet, first, angel. You just pop down to the Ladies, my chick, and then we’ll…”

This was after about 10 days of similar adjurations, and this is where Joan lost it. “Will you stop fu- fri-, bloody well saying pop! Stop also calling me darling, sweetheart, angel, chick, my love. My heart isn’t sweet, it is currently very sour, and I am certainly not anything like an angel, my Peterborough dear. Call me dear if you want, but for God sake stop this bloody pop, pop, pop, pop popping!”

The stunned nurse genuinely had no idea what Joan was on about, and Joan had to repeat back to her the hypnotic but alas not mesmerisingly alluring repetitive verb. The young woman nodded earnestly and then giggled and said she’d never ever thought about it, I mean it’s just a word after all isn’t it, sweetheart, oops, dar-oops, my dear, should I just say Joan, then sweetie, oops? But then her buzzer went, and she left Joan a while, and popped off down the ward to pop a pill into another patient whose daughter Angela happened to be visiting her…octogenarian pop, who thankfully Joan assured me was a long way off popping his clogs. But pace the good old days and the old days really were good, when in our aptly named Grammar School, in English lessons, we had to do précising and parsing and bugger me clause analysis, which I can assure you is no use to any sentient bastard other than the exploitative geezer Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer Ridout, destroyer of many a youth’s happiness pre-1962 with his English Fucking Usage….here is a parsing of the nurse’s incendiary ‘pop’ sentence from three paragraphs back.

‘Pop the nightie’, where ‘pop’ = ‘put’. ‘Pop you down’ where ‘pop’ = ‘take’. ‘Pop inside the cubicle ‘ where ‘pop’ = ‘go’. ‘Pop another special gown’ where ‘pop’ = ‘put’. ‘Pop to the toilet’ and ‘Pop down to the Ladies’ = ‘go’ in both cases. Hence only one verb in the form of ‘pop’, meaning variously 2 ‘puts’, 1 ‘take’ and 3 ‘gos’. It reminds me of Latin ago, agere, egi, actum , to do, to act, to drive…oh so spectacularly versatile. That word ‘pop’ drives and acts and does my bloody head in.

Joan was driven staring mad by the stupid word ‘pop’ and very sad to say she died of secondary breast cancer several years later. She ‘popped’ her mid seventies clogs, as she would have drily and roundly and angrily put it herself. Meanwhile  some of the words that drive me daft, I have already mentioned in an early blog, as in the case of that supremely trulymeansfuckall cringing word ‘iconic’ (unless in the one single context of Greek Orthodox icon art). Paradigm misusage we get as in ‘the iconic author, Martin Amis/Philip K Dick/ Barbara Cartland/ Ovid/ Homer/Arabella Is My Bum Too Big? Weir ’. Also, you might recall, the adjective ‘delicious’ when used in any context other than food. Paradigm misusage, ‘The delicious new novel by Peony Painsthorpe-Puckridge’. There are others though. The use of ‘friendly’ as in ‘children-friendly’ or ‘reader-friendly’. I would love to shove all those ‘friendlies’ up all those vacuous arses and shout at them, I am being  Mrs Cliche-Gobshite-inimical. I am Mr Ponderous Hyper-Twat-inimical, Ms Zoe Zsa Zsa Semantics Lecturer Chibowski-hostile, Prof Penstemon-Groover who is adulatory-student-friendly-anathematising, and so forth. The English language is a sacred miracle but you cheerful wide-eyed buggers use it like an Aldi or a Poundstretcher shop…the lowest and cheapest and bluffest denominator and you use the same old denominators to excess.

When I was 16 in my O level year, our English teacher was a fine old lunatic called Willy Tosh, and I am not making that name up. There are lots of Toshes about…look them up in the phone book and the Yellow Pages. Tosh had a fine if fruitless and folly-driven principle. He believed that the consonant  sequence ‘ct’ as in ‘picture’ and ‘actually’ should be pronounced with the ‘c’ and ‘t’ separately. He also insisted we do likewise or be shouted at for aboriginal illiteracy. Imagine. A pikt-yor. An akt-yoo-al pikt-yor. Akt-yoo-ally, this would seem to be an akt-yoo-al piktryor of your gorgeous  behind back in 1971, remember darling when we were oh so drunk and naked, and started fooling about with the old Brownie or was it akt-yoo-ally an iconic Instamatic? Such a delicious irony, my delicious fruity-pops. Pop your nightie on or you’ll be cold you delicious and oh so iconic penis-friendly gal

Though even that first class idiot savant, Willy Tosh, didn’t say awkt-ee-on for ‘auction’. See what I mean about pedantry and inconsistency? Both Rabelais and Flann O’Brien were right. Proper learning and proper thinking liberate and invigorate. Pedantry and sciolism kill the spirit, pace Thomas Hardy and his novel’s biblical epigraph, the letter killeth. John Holt and Ivan Illich were right about de-schooling. I think we should start de-universitising while we’re at it. Bring back the autodidact, that word that occurs all the way through Sartre’s excellent hallucinatory novel Nausea. Bring back George Orwell. Bring back the autodidact.

Do you hear me?



I started a blog just before Christmas 2014, but it wasn’t my idea. It was my daughter Ione who thought I should start one, both to keep me going in productive writing terms, and also to promote my business of running a fiction school here in Kythnos ( She unfolded her plan after she had spent the morning cleaning my house, as a sort of selfless and very generous and much appreciated though unsolicited act, coupled with just possibly if she brought any beautiful, probably Albanian boy back home any night, it’d be nice if the romantic rendezvous didn’t smell like a long closed and rotting zoo. Two enuretic and encopretic kittens can lend their astringent odour to a Greek bijou apartment, and she was right on that score. She mopped not only around the feline toilet suite, but lifted the litter trays and mopped underneath. I stood there lost in admiration at all that virtuoso cleaning, and wondered for the millionth time, why some people were so brilliant at it and why I, bless me, always made somewhere substantially dirtier whenever I wished to clean it.

I treated her to a joke which Annie and I always enjoyed, and especially in the first decade of our marriage, i.e. until Ione herself was born in 1989. Apropos the fancy stuff of lifting up the litter tray and mopping up the piss and recalcitrant shit stains underneath:

That’s S Level what you’ve just done there, kid

It was originally my own gag and one that Annie thought hilarious, a bit like the illusory 1978 self-cleaning laundry  in the magical laundry basket that I mentioned recently. It was all to do with my idleness, my resistance to change in my self-indulgent habits, and my fear of learning any new, and as far as I was concerned, quite uncalled for, these so-called  and much-overrated, reified, hypostatised and worshipped out of all proportion items, called Skills.

Think about it, as my Kythnos pal, the Kythnos Hora architect Thymios, loves to say every third sentence, you just have a think about it, you English malaka. Just as they didn’t have the words ‘psychology’, ‘dustbin’, ’Bacardi’ ‘pumpernickel’, ‘download’ and ‘snog’ anywhere locatable in Shakespeare, neither did they have the noun ‘Skill’ in the sense of a reified capitalised deity such as nowadays you get 24/7 in the otiose and debatable terms Social Skills(fuck that for a game of cards, and especially if you’re a twice divorced and highly unpopular tenured lecturer who teaches it), Life Skills (shag them and all their smug and unempirical relatives, while you’re at it) and worst of all, Communication Skills (kiss my gorgeous ass and See You Next Tuesday, given that half the folk that teach it are borderline autistic, and this time seventy-three times divorced).

What I mean is Shakespeare got on perfectly well without cudgelling his worthy brains re Psychology, Bacardi and Social Skills, and on that basis I got on perfectly well not doing the fancy stuff, like vigorously hoovering in the difficult corners of the sitting room, as Annie would have wished me to. I was nearly 30, before I found out that to get in the tough corners, you have to change the extension and put one of those slit edged plastic attachment things on the hoover, which  wonderfully can poke its snout in tight corners and greedily suck up as much fluff and grats (a word for gritty detritus shards that only Annie and I ever used) and dusty refuse as anyone could wish.

When Annie originally urged me to get stuck into the awkward corners with our gurgling 1974 hoover, I pulled a face and deadpan croaked:

“That’s bloody S Level, that is. It’s not on the A level syllabus, and I don’t have to do it…”

Annie was one of the cleverest women I have ever met, but she hadn’t gone beyond O (Ordinary)levels at school, and couldn’t wait to get out of the mind-numbing, conveyor belt factory that her local Grammar School earnestly promoted itself as. It also incidentally yielded the biggest number of unmarried 19 year-old pregnancies, when the Cumbrian GS girls went to Manchester for tertiary education, and once out of the pitiless  hothouse, couldn’t wait to disrobe, yell give it to me Terry, gorgeous Mancunian West Didsbury babe, and engage in something that was better than poxy old Geography homework, even if it was all about riveting names like Raleigh, Carolina,  and the principal exports of the American towns on the Fall Line. Yet, even though  she’d never seen the hallowed and cathedral-like inside of a GS Sixth Form, Annie  understood the reference. If you were studying A (Advanced)levels in the Sixth Form, and supposing you were taking a crack at Oxbridge entrance, or somewhere else that fancied themselves as nearly Oxbridge (e.g. funereal and soporific old Durham, or groovy old druggy old  Bristol) you could opt to take additional S (Scholarship) Levels. They were a  kudos matter as much as anything, and a teacher might try and bully you into taking them, even when you’d already got university entrance, because it looked inordinately good for them, for the maestro teacher behind the maestro pupil. One of them tried to get me to do S Level Chemistry, when I’d already been accepted by Oxford, and I just gave him one bleak look, said nothing and walked away. I had not uttered a sound, but he knew right well that I had said for all the world to hear, fuck that for a game of cards and you can stuff it up your burette, your pipette and your dear old Islets of Langerhans, to switch to Biology which was yet another S level I refused to take.

So…if you were ploughing away at your Biology A level and some bright spark of a fellow student showed off to Miss Prodger by babbling ostentatiously, about Interferon or the biochemical equations of ATP and ADP catalysis, you would turn to the bilious show off, and sneer, We don’t have to do that, that’s bloody S level, not A level! (Miss Prodger by the way would let an 18 year old away with a ‘bloody’ but if you said ‘fuck’, she changed colour and threatened sending you to The Boss, aka Al Capone in a merciless hangman’s Cantab gown from 1931). Hence when I told Annie, hoovering in  the corners was S Level, and I was only doing A Level, meaning only the sitting room carpet and bugger the redundant and quite unnecessary frills, she knew at once the reference and duly fell about. Thereafter, we both used the gag about once a month, all the way through till she died at the end of 2009. The last two weeks of her life of course, she was never going to make gags about S Levels or about anything else.

So with the house cleaning out of the way, and it was a hot December midday by now, we set off for a walk beyond little Martinakia beach. On the road to Episkopi, you can spot an interesting looking dirt track, ascending up into the steep hills above the port. I had never been up it, but my guess was it would have some fine aerial views over the port and over the sumptuous Episkopi plain and as far as Apokrousi and Kolona bays. For lunch I had packed a tiropitta and a packet of crisps each, plus  a pop bottle of Liokri retsina per head, and as always, as much water as Ione could drink and which I  dromedary-wise rarely imbibed. Annie, when she was alive, always marvelled as she noted that the only things I ever drank were wine and coffee. It was not quite accurate, because I do often have boxed fruit juice and now in the Glaros and the Paradisos I quaff fresh orange kheemo which is both delicious and a bargain here on Kythnos.  But both Annie and her daughter enjoyed bottled water by the yard, a fact which I always find immoderately baffling. The thing about water, whether bottled or not is, it has no discernible taste, and you might as well swallow fresh air in my view.

En route to the top Ione, expounded the idea of the blog to me. I recoiled  a good deal as she spoke, because I imagined at first she meant a two-way blog, pace the dialogue you sometimes get on Facebook. I liked what you said about x, and yes I liked that you liked the fact that I liked  x, and yes I liked the fact you liked me liking the fact that you liked x…and it can go on by this infinitely serial cascading and mysterious absence of Intensity and Passion (‘you know, I really like the fact you like the fact, that I am not passionate and not intense’) all the way till the two correspondents are pushing up the earth.  But no, Ione didn’t mean that, or she said that at least it could be optional, and you could have a one way blog where people could post comments if they wished, but which you blogger papa, have no means of responding to, even if you wanted to. In the end, as you see I have compromised by regularly putting my personal email address at the start of a post and saying with sincerity that anyone is free to contact me directly any time. That makes the dialogue between myself and any correspondent, private and as it were straight and sober, rather than our vicarious self-conscious babbling for the entire universe.

I’ve already given two reasons why Ione thought I should blog: to get my writing arm going again after the five years silence since Annie had died, and to promote my fiction teaching business Writing in Kythnos. The other reason, was her personal great fondness for the diary pieces I had written about moving to Kythnos and finding my feet after September 2013, or VE Day as I sometimes call it. I had written these at the end of December that year and put them in alongside everyone’s Christmas cards. That Christmas I had sent cards to about 50 people, most of them in the UK, which meant the postage alone was 50 x 90 cents = 45 euros. When I went in the Loutra Post Office, postman Spiros originally from Rhodes was in charge, as the head honcho was at great personal expenses blithely partying in Athens for a fortnight around the festive time. You could see Spiros was under considerable strain, as the post even in quiet as a mouse  Kythnos swells a fair bit about Yuletide. The poor bugger had to be both postman and post office clerk at the busiest time of the year, and to be conspicuously candid, he was a moody, sullen kind of fifty year-old Rodiot at the best of times. I shouted yasu and asked him for 50 stamps, and where any other half reasonable postperson would have been delighted by such a grandiose purchase, he stared at me sourly and said:

“Why would anyone in their right mind want to buy fifty stamps?”

He had a point, but it was Christmas  rather than Armageddon, as far as I could recall, and I told him as much. Surely this ought to be the season of your anomalous Non- Sulking, Kyrio Spiros, my dear malaka, aka Ebenezer Papadopoulos…

So, Ione stressed, no two-way blog, and people would surely love your cracked entertaining thoughts about Kythnos, about writing, about everything that comes to mind. She told me my barmy anarchic stuff made her laugh like hell, and her favourite diversion back in Wroclaw, where she worked before she came to Kythnos for Christmas, was to receive one of my diary pieces and grab a bottle of beer and settle down on her bed for a good old laugh. Anyone would have been moved by having a daughter say something like that, and I was certainly bolstered and heartened to know that I had at least one firm fan still left in the universe.

The blog has been going about two months by now, and the total number of views is way in excess of that novel of mine that sold best, the Booker listed Jazz Etc of 2003. I have followers in remarkable places, meaning furren parts, and I have no idea who they are or how they have heard about me and my blog. The countries where I am followed, include among the exotic list, Qatar, Turkey and Colombia. I don’t know anyone in those countries personally, nor do I know anyone who knows people there. Because my daughter is a TEFL toiler called Ione, I can work out why folk in Poland, Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, the UK, USA, Australia and Italy are reading it, but again it is oh so different from my fiction publishing, as then only a handful of people bought and read my books from anywhere outside the UK. I have a brother and his family in Australia, and they have always been loyal to me and my books, but otherwise it was only ever going to be good old Blighty, not least because my books are often stuffed full of comic but non-ornamental Cumbrian dialect, and no UK publisher is going to risk their neck on those, when they wont risk their neck on anything other than the safest of safe bets, in any case. The publishing world have the slenderest necks and simultaneously the most unbending rhino hide skins in existence. And please don’t get me to talking about, God love us, literary agents, or I will be spitting blood and feathers for the next twenty years. Suffice to say I once had dealings with a top notch, pop star included literary agent, who turned to me on one august metropolitan occasion, and without any trace of irony, said, You know, John, I’m not really literary, as an agent…

At least she was honest, and I doubt if she could spell Shakespeare or Drabble or frontispiece, much less read him or her or it. But can you imagine an estate agent saying, I’m not really estatey? In the sense that she didn’t really deal with these baffling things called estates, but dealt with what, polony skins or ostrich feathers instead?

Here are the itemised pleasures and benefits of writing a blog as opposed to writing fiction and enduring all the thwarting and depressing processes that follow:

-I can write what I like, and no one can stop me. Can you imagine what that supreme freedom is like for any species of writer? Critics like DJ Taylor say that I have always written precisely what I wanted anyway. That is provisionally true, but it has always firmly tied me to tiny fiction imprints who simply do not have the means of selling books in quantities, if only because they do not have big shot distributors or the finances, to do mega-promotion in national newspaper ads. Thus my 2004 novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels got 10 mostly very good reviews, one or two a full page with mugshot in posh broadsheets and respectable journals, and was a Novel of the Week in that ideological beacon of the far left, the Daily Telegraph,  which hosts trenchant letters from Trotskyists in their Esher and Godalming and St Albans chapters. If Cape or Faber had had that kind of coverage they would have sold bucketloads, but because I was with a minuscule imprint it sold 550. I did not earn my advance and Flambard lost money on it, but Flambard were always my salt and my bread and my staff, and my crutch and my life,  and be assured their like will not be seen again.

-I can write and publish a blog post when I like, and put it up when I like, without any editorial or publishing delay. By contrast if your  novel is accepted for publication, you have to wait anywhere between a year and two years, to see it in print. Right enough, it takes time to assemble and promote a book and get everything niftily in place for its birth, but that still doesn’t justify a two year penance in the Provincial and Letterless Outer Darkness does it? I mean you could die of inanition as readily as cancer in those two long years of wait, wait waiting…

-I have no editor other than myself and this suits me perfectly. I am an antiquated  brainbox of a kind, as well as an intelligent imbecile, and there is only me knows what I want to write, no other wishful thinking bastard has the faintest inkling, and never will they. I like digressions and some of my posts take 500-1000 words to reach the mooted theme or subject, but both my loyalest readers and I, could not give a flying shite about that. It’s like being on a bus journey abroad (and remember Kythnos and Greece definitely are abroad), where you are enjoying the countryside, and you really couldn’t give a damn where the bus is ultimately heading, much less the purpose of the bus journey. I can tell you what the purpose of the journey is. The purpose of the journey, is the journey for its own sake, end of story. But put it even simpler, when you eat a bar of chocolate you are enjoying  the gustatory  and olfactory experience as you proceed a-chewing and a-slurping. Unless you are an eejit or an apocalyptic sourpuss, you are not looking forward to the end = Absence of Chocolate = a Void or Nothingness qua a certain type of Mahayana Buddhist, who sees the ultimate spiritual and epistemological truth as The Void or Shunya.

-I can publish what I write the same day, if I wish. I don’t need a publisher, editor, printer, distributor, bookshop. All I need is a laptop and my daughter’s Facebook to promote it, as, unbelievable as this might sound, I am on neither fb, nor Linked In, nor even Shacked Up, and possibly as a result  roundly Fucked Up.

By way of conclusion and as wholly gratuitous aside, I would love to know the reality of that specific UK dating agency that caters only for people who wear uniforms  and for those original individuals who get turned on by someone who wears one. In my youth when I was studying German at school I soon learnt that the word Beamte is the most important single noun in German. It means ‘official’, and whereas a Brit would maybe laugh at a bus conductor frowningly ticking them off for tearing the end off their ticket accidentally, and therefore hovering dangerously close to having to purchase a second…no German would ever in their dreams laugh at the epic solemnity of the Holy one who Officiates, much less laugh at them over a mere bureaucratic bagatelle…

Am I myself turned on by uniforms? Mm. I like hospital nurses in a big way but I don’t think it’s because of their uniforms. I think it’s because of their handsome breasts and their flashing thighs and their delectable swaying backsides, and I am talking about the ones in their fifties and sixties, not about the bright eyed kids in uniform. So there you go. Blog on and blog off… and ever upwards and onwards.



An eccentric musician is pointing proudly at his recent purchase of a battered car, in La Vie Boheme , a film by Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki :

The musician grins and  says, ‘IT HAS WHEELS AND THINGS!’

Yes. A kindred soul right enough. I hate the mechanical and physical world. Do you?

Sorry, I need to clarify my nebulous terms, as believe me, I am not  a Luddite, even though several dozen perfidious people who know me, would queue up to say yes he is, the lying Cumbrian bastard. Let’s make it plain that I love finished and let us emphasise flawless technology, inasmuch as I love my CD player, I love my laptop as long as, forgive me, the self-willed and capricious little ASUS bastard performs OK, and I also love aeroplanes that get  me from A to B very fast, instead of being sat opposite the world’s most selflessly generous bore on some trundling train for five weeks, to get from e.g. Milan to a Milan suburb. You can guess what’s coming, I really hate it when the CD player fucks up, and starts doing helicopter blade susurrations, and the perverse and insensitive so-and-so particularly loves to do this at the most haunting delicate moment of some sacred choral music of Hummel or Bach or Cimarosa. Alternatively with some oh so tremulous, evanescent and poignant jazz guitar of John Abercrombie or Ralph Towner or Egberto Gismonti. It’s simple enough, I want marvellous Abercrombie and Towner and Gismonti, unedited and in the round, I don’t want a fucking US Whirlybirds deleted episode in my spacious Kythnos sitting room. I had quite enough of that lacklustre aeronautic drivel,  even more boring than homework, on the BBC back in 1961 when I was 10. And bear in mind that all the treacherous and unreliable CD laser players I have ever owned, about six over a quarter of a century, were never ever going to go haywire with wondrous Easy Listening Klaus Wunderlich CDs, or Best 5000 Methedrine Trance Numbers from Ye Olde Gaga-Gogo Club, to be found in syringe strewn Central Manchester, UK.

Remember when the CD format came out around 1986 (that’s when by postilion-accompanied stagecoach, they reached bloody old West Cumbria) and they were said to be indestructible and always playable? You could dance on them, spread jam on them, stamp on them, shit on them, piss on them, puke on them, write a novel on them,  puke, piss and shit on the unbelievably unspeakable novel, and magically they would be serenely unaffected, and keep on playing perfectly with their remarkable digital laser sonorities, as opposed to the former vinyl LPs which at their worst sounded like a Taiwan transistor radio heard from a far distant invisible submarine.

Or did they, in fact, and is this not a brazen calumny? I have owned certain LPs, e.g. with the heavenly Janet Baker singing Bach Cantatas, that sound after 30 years as good as digital CDs, and believe me they never once ever turned into  helicopter blades, pace John Cage. The worst you ever got was a bit of a hiccup scratch, and with an LP you could more or less live with that. It you were lucky, the scratch was a bit of dirt that you brushed off, and then the LP was as good as new. Likewise if a bit of muck is all that’s fouling up your present day CD, fine, all to the good, but if you have a full blown ineradicable scratch on your indestructible digital artefact, you might as well throw it in the famished and roaring maw of the recycling bin and go out and buy another.

Thirty seven years ago back in 1978, I was teaching a WEA class that included my future wife Annie. We were studying Radical Alternatives with thinkers on subjects as diverse as de-schooling (John Holt), anti-psychiatry (Laing and Cooper and Bateson), syndicalist anarchism (Eric Fromm) and last but not least the writings of the eco-trenchant, Austrian Ivan Illich. Multilingual and of mixed Jewish and Croatian parentage, some of his books had quaint and rather forbidding titles, that betokened a certain unrelentingness of method and approach. Instead of calling his books e.g. Fuck The Oppressive Bastards, he called them Medical Nemesis, Tools for Conviviality and Celebration of Awareness. Forgive my auto-flippancy, for he was a brave Catholic priest and Puerto Rico Catholic university rector in 1956, who five years later, based in Cuernavaca, Mexico, was frequently in conflict with the Vatican. Principally this was because of his campaigning work in radicalising missionaries on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Earlier, in 1959, as an opponent of wasteful and destructive luxuries, like air and automobile travel, he toured around  a great deal of South America by bus and foot.

Illich advocated eco-conscious poor communities, who would convivially be using bicycles and buses, rather than cars or aeroplanes, because the bike was low energy and the bus was communal and convivial. The solo driver, or the nuclear family safely tucked away in their isolating car, were paradigms of alienated capitalism. However I subsequently heard the story that when Illich became a world star in terms of crowd-pulling public speaking, he was obliged to fly everywhere and use up the air miles just like any multinational exec. I have never been able to source or confirm this rumour, but it seems to me credible enough.

The point about Illich’s convivial tools is they still need some sort of maintenance, and it could be argued that bicycle maintenance in a remote Bolivian hamlet, or keeping a village bus in good running order in rural Guatemala, are easily learnable folk skills rather than expert skills. They are obviously not in the same league as maintaining and servicing an aeroplane, or installing domestic central heating, but then these are always the province of the pampered and moneyed First World, and their non-convivial status is obvious.

All the same it leaves such as me out in the borderlands, as I have neither convivial manual skills nor advanced and technical and non-convivial skills. I cannot mend a bicycle puncture, though I have tried at least once, and let’s summarise it as splendidly gluey, tacky, shitty and rubbery hands, the tube of adhesive shoved up an imaginary arse, and definitely not mine, and the very vilest language from my fair lips, so unspeakably filthy it would make a bulldog blush never mind a hardened army sergeant who once had three spells in Northern Ireland in a central Derry bunker. My one practical skill is cooking and indeed it is my hobby and my passion, and some folk think I am a virtuoso with ethnic vegetarian food. People sometimes generously flatter me, and say I can do it because it is ‘creative’, as is fiction writing, but that is not the explanation. The clue is that though I can cook fearlessly and elaborately and the longer and more complex the recipe the better, I simply cannot bake which is an altogether different and more do-or-die skill. Baking is all about precise quantities, precise mixing, precise timing as a rule. It drives me mad if I try to bake, so when Annie was alive and I needed pastry I got her to make it, and I did the rest.

Otherwise throughout my life, I have always been an expert delegator. I delegate and I pay for services rendered. I get other folk to do the work I cannot do, and I pay them either a fair rate or a generous one, and I usually tend towards excess. Pay excessively and you find people drop everything and come quickly rather than methavrio. The delegation business started with my mother when I was about 10, and liked Airfix models, but could not, no matter how hard I didn’t put my back into it, assemble the damn things. I was no macho ten year old, and though I did not as a rule dress up in girl’s clothes, I definitely didn’t like models of warplanes and battleships, but only of historical figures. I remember a very nice Joan of Arc and a London Beefeater both in 1961 purchased in Workington’s excellent toy shop Brown’s, first on the left when you leave the bus station and enter the nicely named Murray Road. By the way I haven’t been to central Workington for years and I bet they have demolished the beautiful enormous bus station, which I can tell you now was instrumental in the acquisition of my ecstatic teenage sex life in at least twenty five different ways between 1966 and 1969. The bastards are blithely knocking down lovely old bus stations everywhere: Maryport, Whitehaven, and glorious Ponte de Lima, N. Portugal, with its superbly scruffy little cafe, to name only three). At any rate, as I couldn’t assemble the London Beefeater,  I asked my 45 year-old mother to do it, and to my amazement she agreed. She was very accomplished altogether, and only made one balls up, which to be sure I would also have made, if I’d got like her to vertiginous instruction 6, rather than sulked and fumed over the baffling first line of Instruction 1 (open the plastic bag with all the parts in it, and do not put this over your head or anyone else’s).

The Beefeater was assembled, except for his ceremonial spear or possibly lance, which I believe is officially called a mace, unless that’s what every morning, on dressing, he puts on his head. Whatever the case, there was a very handy hole in the model’s hand, through which you slid the long spear/ lance/ mace/ halberd/hauberk/ escutcheon/ tomahawk. Fifty years on it is obvious even to one like me, that the long ceremonial weapon should have gone a quarter to half way up the top side of his fist, rather like a javelin thrower who holds the thing well below the top, as he or she sets off running. Instead, my mother happily glued the lance at the top of the Beefeater’s fist, something technically impossible because no one, not even Charles Atlas or Charles Bronson, could have balanced a bloody great haft like that on the top of their clenched palm. After perhaps an hour, as she looked at the fruits of her labours, she noticed her comical mistake. She dithered a little over whether it had spoiled the effect, but more or less simultaneously we both shook our heads and said, it doesn’t matter. For that moment we were just like two laidback, who gives a shit Greeks, muttering dhen pirazi, dhen pirazi or like two drunken Germans gurgling s’ macht nichts, s’ macht nichts.

I have delegated ever since and will be delegating to the end of my days. Over the decades I have had neighbours who looked to me the practical kind, sorting out a bit of dangerous electrical wiring or emergency plumbing in exchange for beer or wine. One of the poor West Cumbrian guys, a security guard, has MS thirty years on, and it is a painful shame to see how he is declining. At the moment here in Kythnos I delegate to wondrous handyman Bojan, an unshaven Serb who lives three doors down from me. Bojan has lived in Greece for 30 years and at 50 he speaks fluent Greek, and makes me passing jealous as a result. He advertises himself as all purpose handyman, and he is the living refutation of me the hairy beardy Anglos, as, whereas I can do nothing practical,  he can do absolutely anything. None of these feeble demarcations of plumber, joiner, electrician, builder, labourer, cleaner, gardener. I bet he could write me a bloody string quartet or some Serbo-Croatian and even Greek belles lettres, if I got  a helpful book out of the library for him. The point is he scrapes along during the summer and is prepared to travel the length of the island on his 50 year old Honda 70, his bosom buddy who is incredibly the same age as him. But come winter it all dries up and he goes into hibernation or rather he waits hopefully to see if anyone needs anything doing…

I am always needing things fucking doing. The shower nozzle went kaput  in November, and I bought a new one at Loutra, and Bojan fixed it in a trice. The metal poles for the balcony washing-line broke, and the line fell down because of severe winds. It then fell down a second time after Bojan had brilliantly fixed it, when around Christmas Ione used a single, yes just one, small half broken peg to hang a blanket she had washed and which weighed two hundred and twenty five tons, and she also pinned it short side uppermost for extra spectacular gravitational effect.

Last month I needed a soap tray and a towel rail put up. Bojan did those with his eyes shut and whistling a rather peculiar Serbian folk ditty. He wasn’t whistling so much when he sorted the antique lavatory cistern for me, and knelt on the seat which went flying, because inadequately affixed by yours truly. His tools were on that seat and the screwdriver and spanner went flying into the splashing slurping ice cold bog. He had to fish inside with his bare hairy Balkan hands and you should have heard the cussing coming out of him in both Greek and Serbian and possibly Croatian and Bosnian and Slovenian and Macedonian. I thought I was  good swearer, till I heard Bojan at it. He is surely Gold Cup blasphemy, and I am a mere bronze Special Prize in comparison.