SHERRYVAPPA AND THE ROAD TO FAME

SHERRYVAPPA AND THE ROAD TO FAME

There are at least two convenient terms for someone who keeps on making the same serious mistakes in life: an Abominable Idiot and a Cretinous Failure. On a lesser scale, I personally see myself as something of an expert failure in profane worldly terms. A failure, inter alia,  when it comes to a rank paucity of the following: money; fame; copious adoring female literary groupies of any age or race or girth or height or weight; dizzying fluency in 10 or more foreign languages; ability to draw anything that doesn’t look like either a very ugly sausage or a wholly charmless boiled egg, even if it is meant to be either the sumptuous buttocks of a female nude, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or of Macclesfield Town Hall on a day of thick fog. So yes, I get very irritated by my repetitive bollicking things up, when with a little thought I could have avoided the pitfalls entirely. For example, just about every day, I have anywhere between one and five great ideas for my next piece on this blog. Without fail, I say to myself, I’ll write that down very soon, because I am such a hopeless, sieve-brained and truly insufferable West Cumbrian twat aka dialect tuss (forgive my ebullient four-letter candour, but bear in mind it is directed at me and not at anyone else), that frankly I have no other option but to note it down. However the other default option I have, is to forget the cautionary promise to myself. I almost always forget to jot it down, and as a result, at least five literary phillipics of unbelievable transcendental  genius (Woolf, Joyce, Proust, Stendhal, George Eliot, I had left them all sadly far behind and they were staring jealously up at me on my high wire, wherefore I was congratulating myself on being the Number One among Number Ones at long last) and then I realised I’d forgotten to write even a two-word memo as to the essential scaffolding and ineffable architecture  of the Greatest Ever Prose Work of the Entire Millennium.

If you are old enough and lucky enough, you might in 1977 have seen the BBC Arena documentary film about the English novelist William Gerhardie (1895-1977). Frequently compared with his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, and also often described as the English Chekov, he published a string of indefatigably brilliant novels throughout the 20s and 30s. Some of them were acceptably orthodox works, after a vigorous Chekovian fashion, as in Futility, and some of them decidedly off-centre  as with Resurrection, which deals with facetiously described out-of-the-body experiences, something Gerhardie was entirely at one with. His last new work was published in 1939, and after the Second World War his star was definitely in decline. In his old age he lived a recluse in his London flat, subsisting largely on his own invention ‘sherryvappa’, namely copious sherry diluted with tinned evaporated milk. Gerhardie claimed this favourite tipple of his was entirely alcohol free. But then he also claimed he was working on one the greatest masterpieces ever written, something to knock Proust into a cocked hat, to quote from George Orwell in one of his essays. Part of his extreme allure to me as an unpublished writer, in my early 30s in 1983, was his artistic aesthetic, which I much preferred to that of say the comparably talented Vladimir Nabokov. Both Russophiles (Gerhardie spent some of his anti-Bolshevik youth in Russia) believed in the desirable goal of an exquisite literary epiphany that was transcendent, numinous, and comparable with the reports of those who speak of the Experience Divine. However Nabokov was no devout and humble Believer, and in addition loved his own genius inordinately, though doubtless he would have artfully dissimulated otherwise. Gerhardie was different, because he was profoundly a spiritual man, and below I will provide his theological credo, in a single though extremely challenging sentence. Crucially, Gerhardie also believed that the gentle comic spirit in any serious literary endeavour, allowed for a stereoscopic and therefore compassionate view of the author’s characters and their dramas, their deeds and their despairs. Many Buddhists of course would approve of all of this, as would a great many Christians.

Here is Gerhardie’s single sentence credo as intended to confute the mutton-headed atheists of his day. It does not make for easy reading, but then neither do the Epistles of St Paul or the Gospel of St John, or the Hindu Vedantasara. Please note that for easier comprehension I have capitalised throughout, where William Gerhardie did not.

The Spiritual Habit on the other hand is to Infer from Our Common Demonstrable Limitations, the Assumption of a Reality Outstripping Our Comprehension, Which Ever Stands in Inverse Ratio to our Presumption.

I could parse this for you at exhausting length, but I think that those of you who are serious will work it out  for yourselves. But if you’re desperate for a clue, concentrate only on the Reality Outstripping Our Comprehension, and believe me, Gerhardie wasn’t talking about teeny bopper sci-fi, or any other assorted and mock-esoteric ephemera.  Meditate also on what Presumption means, which is thinking you definitely know your spiritual arse from your spiritual elbow, which if you’re anything like me, assuredly you do not. Needless to say, and I’m sure some of you will have guessed what’s coming already, when Gerhardie died and his house was turned over by his eager literary executors, no such peerless masterwork was ever found. Only a phenomenal quantity of old-fashioned filing cards, with minute handwritten notes that were entirely indecipherable…hence wholly useless.

Was it a joke or a hoax, or a monumental example of vainglorious and sherry-sodden senile failure? Not in my book. Far from being an example of gigantic failure, my own theory is that he probably recited the indubitable masterwork to his tail-wagging dog or his yawning cat, when fully gargled on a gallon or so of Sherryvappa, and said to himself, why the hell should I bother turning this into a laughably time-bound thing called, for crying out loud, A Book? Added to which in my view, his three best novels, Futility, The Polyglots and Doom, are worth ten thousand or more of our brightest and greatest here in the UK and USA in 2015, Booker winners included.  In a nutshell, once you’ve hit the sodding jackpot, you are not requested to hit the elusive and unloving, and frankly not worth it miragic and putrid and wholly inconsequential bastard ever again.

Shoot me down if I’m wrong, he said to the drunk in the corner, and believe it or not the drunk was the soberest, and certainly the most honest person, stood there on that majestic prizewinning night.

DREAMING IN GREEK

DREAMING IN GREEK

I am very busy with non-blog activities from tomorrow 31st March until Wednesday 8th April, so the posts might be fewer then, if any. You can always contact me direct at john@writinginkythnos.com

The smallest island I have ever been on is a Greek one called Marathi, which by coincidence is also the name of an Indian language that in spoken in Maharasthra, whose majestic capital is the megalopolis Bombay/Mumbai. Marathi, close to Lipsi in the Dodecanese, is basically a narrow sand spit less than a kilometre long, and it has two seasonal tavernas and an Orthodox chapel, and that is it. The taverna we ate in was run by a confident  and energetic man in his handsome mid 50s, who had good English and served his food in exquisite ceramics. We drank white wine out of beautiful goblets, and listened as he tried passionately to persuade us to come back and have a proper holiday here, a whole fortnight on Marathi and nowhere else. He flatteringly advised us that we were a very good and very admirable and very compact family (a single daughter Ione just one month short of 13 in May 2002, and currently in fiercely glowering sulk mode)and we were just the right discriminating clients for someone like his taverna, which also doubled as a luxury domatia. Had she had no teenage daughter, Annie my wife might have relished the prospect of two weeks on a desert island, with gobleted wine and aubergine imam, and a gorgeous sandy beach and nothing else. After a gruelling week of consultant training, her very understandable idea of bliss was never to leave our North Cumbrian farmhouse for the whole weekend, and to see no one apart from Ione and myself.

The reason why Ione was sulking was that we had dragged her from our base on Lipsi, where she had become close acquaintances with a boy of 18 called Manolis, who was impressively the only person on Lipsi, and quite possibly the whole of the Dodecanese, with a bloody hell, look at that, a bloody old Mohican haircut. Today we were on a bargain boat excursion, which took us to Marathi and the bigger sister isle of  Arki, of which more later. Ione would have insistently preferred to have stayed on Lipsi, there to dally romantically with the Last of the Mohicans, who was actually from Athens but staying with his Lipsi uncle. She did precisely that while Annie and I walked around tiny Lipsi, neighbour of the much better known Patmos. That arrangement permitted her 2 to 3 hour blocks in the company of burly massive Manolis, who thankfully was very rarely without his cousin, a fat and dozy looking youth called Panos. Panos looked irresistibly like Porky, best buddy of Geoff on the 1950s Lassie TV show, and I always referred to Manolis and Panos as Geoff and Porky, and hazarded that they greeted each other the same way the two TV friends did, with their secret formula of kay-oh-kay. However what is weird Ione, I snorted incredulously, is that there is no Lassie collie dog with them, in fact not any kind of dog on the horizon. This made Ione laugh as it happened, even  though she was deeply smitten with  Mohican Mano.

But today we were on a 6 hour boat ride, and after 2 seconds deliberation we decided we were not going to leave a 12 year-old girl with an 18 year-old boy for 6 unsupervised hours. Ione saw this steely absolutism of ours as unreformed Fascism, though she didn’t use those precise words, although neither were the ones she used even remotely polite or neutral, when it came to astringent cusswords muttered in an unrelenting  sotto voce. Annie chipped in with her own humorous attempt to scare her daughter off, by saying that Manolis the Mohican was probably on a kind of police probation, and was staying with his uncle, not on a voluntary holiday but in compulsory exile. Again this made our daughter laugh, most probably because she didn’t believe it, whereas Annie and I on reflection though it a most definite working possibility.

Lipsi Hora which is also the port, is a sprawling and wholesome little place with some unpretentious and bargain domatia. In the one we stayed,  we were given a separate room  for Ione gratis, and the friendly owner Eleni told us that Mohican Manolis was regarded on the whole as yet another immature Athens youth, just the juvenile type to encourage a girlfriend six years his junior  i.e. a beautiful young English girl of 12. One day infinitely hardworking Eleni showed us a massive tray of stuffed courgette flowers she had prepared for some friends arriving from Kos. They were so beautiful we felt like children looking at a festive birthday cake, and Eleni gave us samples and they were of an order of deliciousness appropriate to a fairy tale too.

Lipsi was a somnolent place to dawdle, with a sweet little strip of sandy beach called Platys Gialos, about an hour’s walk from the Hora. Platys Gialos had a permanent flotilla of loudly quacking ducks, and a ramshackle taverna run by a bespectacled boy of 15, who was all on his own but not dismayed by the fact. Otherwise Lipsi’s main sightseeing attractions had highly anticlimactic names like Monodhendri, meaning The Lone Tree. Which is precisely what Monodhendri was, a lone juniper tree on a lonely country junction that was windblown and gnarled as a result. To be sure it was a very striking juniper tree, though 5 seconds of examining it was quite adequate. That was Memorable Spectacle 1, out of 4 such Memorable Spectacles on Dodecanese Lipsi. Far more  impressively, a few years earlier there had been a lonely hermit in his eighties called Filippos, dwelling in a tiny monastery above remote Kimisi Bay at the far end of Lipsi. But Filippos had become ill and was no longer there, living in a deserved comfort back in the Hora.

It is all very well to joke about Lipsi’s limitations, but things can get very serious on tiny islands. The boat trip that took us to Marathi was run by two Australian Greeks, Maria and Zafiris, who had moved back here from Melbourne with their sixteen year-old  son. Being Aussies they had perfect English and sounded as much Australian as Greek. Maria explained how there were two such day trip outfits on Lipsi, one of them preceding hers, and run by a local father and son, who spoke almost no English. Predictably the sheeplike tourists opted for the one run by the Australians, as it was a bit of a linguistic struggle with the others, who also did not provide quite as much free wine and titbits as Maria and Zafiris.  The local father and son grew considerably embittered as their income dwindled, so that one day the headstrong son lost it completely, and stuck a knife in Maria’s son and almost killed him. The case was currently pending at the court in adjacent Leros island. Annie and I were considerably shocked, but as Maria pointed out when a Greek starts to lose his income in a big way then everyone needs to run for cover.

After Marathi came pretty little Arki, population 40, and again with two tavernas. It has one hamlet capital, and otherwise nothing but scattered second homes and very few of those. When we got off the boat we followed our ears towards some effulgent and highly improbable jazz piano, and it turned out to be Bill Evans who was irradiating the pungent sea breeze and the intense May heat. The jazz freak was the taverna owner, who was about 50, handsome, long-haired, spoke English, and looked as if he was a most contented man. There I definitely could have spent two idyllic and perfectly mindless weeks, listening to his jazz collection and wandering the few trails to other beaches and possibly a couple of chapels. So could Annie, who also liked the mellowness and tenderness of Bill Evans, but Ione by now was in an unrepentant boiling froth. She kept asking us what time we would be back in Lipsi, and we kept telling her the same answer, but she did not like that answer and would have liked 3 hours shaved off it, and seemed surprised that we could not unilaterally do the shaving by commanding Aussie Zafiris to set off back forthwith, even though there were 10 other tourists very much wishing that our boat trip lasted twice as long.

BOJAN MEETS POPEYE

BOJAN MEETS POPEYE

There are no two ways about it, Bojan the handyman and my next door neighbour, is a dirty bugger. I looked out from my balcony this morning, and beheld a paint tray that he had used to emulsion my ceiling, just thrown into the grass, the white paint strewn everywhere, and polluting the Kythnos herbage. The now white mile-high weeds in the form of rampant wasteland, had never of course harmed anyone. If you did that to your neighbour back in the UK, it would be the beginning of a bloody no-holds barred war over the garden wall, an obvious act of aggressive provocation. But Bojan isn’t aggressive or provocative, he is just a plain and simple dirty bugger. As I said in an earlier piece he is a very thin Serbian of about 50, and he is a genius of a handyman, who can do absolutely anything. He is also my immediate neighbour, and can be hailed in ten seconds if I want him, surely the absolute dream conditions for a useless bastard like me, whose only practical skills are a) cooking, though I’m not even sure that is properly a practical manual skill and b) complex timed recordings on old video machines, a result of me being so crazy about World Cinema, I would do anything to tape three small hours subtitled movies in a row, from the old Artsworld or Film 4 World of blessed memory.

Here in Kythnos of course, I have no VHS machine, and even back in Cumbria the one I rented was both second hand and the last one in stock, so that  the dolorous technician told me that when that one went kaput, that was it. A DVD player and recorder is going to be obligatory for the likes of you, squire, though even those, he pointed out glumly, were laughably retro nowadays. Nowadays there were these…but I walked downstairs from the telly room, as he prepared to tell me, because I didn’t really want to know about the new gizmo that made you able to download a film by simply gawking and robotic winking your left eyelid as the equivalent of a 2013 wireless mouse. 3 winks for a French movie and 5 winks for a Japanese film and 215 if it were from Uzbekistan. The specific title you did by simple telepathy, and the neat little manual in 33 languages showed you how to do this piece of truly glorious techno-pish in 5 minutes flat.

I have only been to Serbia when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. That was in 1972, with a cut-price holiday outfit called Tent Trek, that took us to Turkey by landrover via Bled and Belgrade and Nis.  We barely stopped at any of those Serbian towns, and whizzing through Belgrade I saw nothing but featureless high rise flats, and in Nis only a poverty-stricken old gypsy lady leading a sorry looking mule in the pissing rain, and that was it. Bojan is from Belgrade and though he has superbly fluent Greek he has no English other than fuck, shit, naw problemma, John, and hello thar, malaka. We thus have to communicate in Greek, which possibly explains why the cat flap he recently constructed for Billy Bob and Cousin Rex, has proved to be such an idiosyncratic folly. It is my own fault and I should have done him a diagram, but then on honest reflection my graphic skills are such that he might have thought I wanted a parrot cage or a hot tub or a deep fat fryer, and believe me his handyman talents are such that he would have had a bloody good go at furnishing me with all three. I asked him in Greek to cut a small rectangular opening in the back door onto the balcony, to allow the cats in and out. My guess is Bojan definitely heard the words ‘in’ and  ‘out’ but not the conjunction ‘and’. He also unconsciously reversed the two prepositions, and deftly added a handy and wholly imaginative negative, so that what he heard was ‘out but not in’.

The result is I have a pretty little ‘exit only’ on the balcony door, where it hinges back and indeed can be secured with a sweet little latch and bolt furnished by perfectionist Bojan. The only problem is that it does not work in reverse, meaning it allows the cats to go out but not to get back in, unless it is left wide open 24/7. The result is that when it heats up as it will soon, and Kythnos mosquitoes start their partying, I will be up shit creek and frankly I don’t even want to think about it. It also means the permanently open little dolls’ house door attracts visitor cats, but only one on a regular basis, thank God. It is a brown and amiable  female of maybe 2 years  who I have dubbed Maud, and she has a very gentle to the point of imbecilic face. She often just sits outside on the balcony gazing in through the dolls’ house door, and looks exactly like some children’s picture book all about cats that can talk, get married, have palaces, rule kingdoms, possess gold, and in her kingdom of course there no such things as inoperable sodding cat flaps.

I haven’t said enough about Bojan’s dirtiness, because aside from a gallon of white paint, he flings other things on the wasteland grass out the back. Knackered and rusted tools he no longer cares to contemplate, as they sit there redundant and therefore despised, in his massive and comprehensive tool box. Cardboard boxes wherein new and much better tools had just been acquired, and the best way of christening them, was to get them out of the stupid box and give the cardboard its just deserts by flinging it into oblivion. Also on the grass out back, he tips food he doesn’t want, and especially certain inscrutable Serbian meat stew concoctions, so that it looks as if Bojan has had a  four-star shit out the back, when in fact it is just his getting bored with the tedious act of mastication. His rusty wreck of a car is parked out there too, and all but the driver’s seat is  packed with tools and timber, and odd and sods of piping and bracketing. The boot is so full of the same stuff, he has had to tie it with rope to stop it all bursting out. When he drives it, the roaring exhaust can be heard from Cyprus or possibly Novya Zemlaya or Ulan Bator. There is also his Lambretta 125 which remarkably is older than its owner. Bojan at 50 was born in December 1964 but his Lambretta is of 1962 vintage meaning all of 52 years old.

Bojan’s tragedy is that he is permanently skint, or rather than he only has substantial money in the summer, when Athenian weekenders solicit his handyman skills to work on their sumptuous villas strewn all over the island. During winter he lives on almost nothing, and has the habit of sleeping much of the day, just to cope with being penniless and the boredom that that entails. He gets beer on credit in the Glaros and I buy him one every time I see him there. As I am always needing things done, I also give him regular work, and pay him on the spot at well over the going rate. That is partly because I like him, but also if you pay generously you get any sensible tradesman rushing back at the speed of light to work for you.  His other tragedy and I have no solid evidence for this, other than shrewd commonsensical inference, is that he has a serious drink problem. Someone told me he buys draught tsipuro grape brandy from one of the supermarkets, and according to them gets through a litre a day. I doubt the gargantuan quantity, but I acknowledge that many a day he is unshaven, puffy-eyed, grubby, malodorous at a close distance, and looks plain ill. But then I think I would look ill and have a bad drink problem, if I had all of Bojan’s woes. He has many chronic anxieties to contend with, one being that he has paid no rent since November and the landlady Krystalia is harrying him to get out. Worse still, her highly unpleasant son Kostas aged 40, who by dint of his permanent quizzical and misanthropic frown, looks like a grave digger with toothache, he too has been contributing by ringing up Bojan and threatening to knock his head in if doesn’t fuck off by the end of the month. It is all bluster of course, for not even Kostas who claims to be best buddies with the Hora police, would dare to play the Kythnos Rachman. Kostas owns the local butcher’s shop, and most strikingly you never ever see him walking through the village, but going everywhere by car, even if it only a matter of a hundred yards. What you do observe, as he walks the five yards from shop to car, is that his eyes are peering left and right in search of possible enemies or an invisible attack. That said, he owns another three shops scattered all over the island, plus the very biggest gated mansion in Loutra. The same butcher also owns an enviable property in Kolonaki, the Mayfair of  Athens, and true to form, as a wealthy man, he is the most miserly bugger on earth. He never ever lets anyone off with 10 cents short on their brizola chops, and keeps on asking them for it until eventually he gets it flung on the zinc counter with a take my blood while you’re at it, malaka malaka to boot.

Despite floundering in an ocean of insuperable troubles, Bojan often demonstrates a recklessly insouciant flamboyance. One sign of this is his inordinately garish woollens, an example being a dazzling polychromatic sweater, that makes one think of the musical Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat. Bojan is very strong and wiry, as witnessed by the ferocious pulling and pushing he has to do with some of his plumbing work. But he is also outlandishly skinny and quite short, and the psychedelic dream coat swamps him like a tent, as well as emblazoning him like an unshaven  monarch. Combined with his baseball cap and his ever burning cigarette, he looks as if he runs a dubious Belgrade night club, or even a downtown Serbian brothel which is as colourful and blinding in its profusion of women and bawdiness, as its owner is in his incredible and crazy sweater.

In  reality Bojan has been divorced for fifteen years, and his wife is back in Belgrade and remarried. His 25 year-old son lives in Novi Sad, while his 20 year-old daughter is in Corfu working as a barmaid. Bojan’s very old mother is currently seriously ill in hospital in Belgrade, and both grandkids have already rushed to her bedside. Their seemingly feckless Dad, being rank penniless, cannot even afford the 70 euro bus fare.

That same Dad is at his most revelatory in the height of summer, when he wears khaki shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt. It is enough to take your breath away. He is just so incredibly and comically skinny, like an emaciated Serbian Popeye, or even more like a Belgrade Olive Oyl, who putting gender to one side and to abandon the simile, hasn’t had a shave for three days. I have never anywhere in the world, apart from India forty years ago, seen such a preposterously stick-thin individual. It is so striking I expect everyone in the Glaros to start making jokes about pea sticks, but none of them bats an eyelid, and they cheerfully yasu Bojan as if he is nothing out of the ordinary, neither today nor last week, nor when they first met him 15 years ago. Even sardonic Marianna and jesting Chrisoula who run the Glaros, are not struck by the sight of the famished and fabled spinach guzzler, here incarnate before their very eyes. Come to think of it, neither do they ever remark upon his polychromatic and truly crazy dream coat. That is how it should be of course, but given that Greeks are unarguably the most candid people on earth, it still leaves me considerably baffled.

LONELY AS HELL

LONELY AS HELL

There ain’t no Benediction  for the Lonesome

Anon

Feeling all alone and isolated, as anyone who has experienced intense loneliness can tell you, is an unpleasant, indeed hellish affliction. It is a medical fact, that those who dwell alone and who are without a partner, live shorter lives than those with the incomparable blessing of being with someone they love, or at any rate who they do not actually  hate. The other thing that seriously shortens your life, and rest assured it is not good old Masturbation (which can actually add at least a decade, if you really know what you are about) is doing an excessive quantity of night shifts. That would include no doubt the police, night-watchmen (do you ever get night-watchwomen, I wonder?) doctors and nurses, and I was going say small hours radio disc jockeys, but in fact they cleverly record their programmes in advance during the day.

I am going to propound a radical, and it pains me to be so boastful, but I would say a brilliant theory about the nature of human loneliness. I believe that it is entirely situational and contextual, meaning that in seemingly near-identical circumstances,  X and Y, you can feel very lonely in X, but not at all in Y. Let me give myself as a good example. Between December 2009 and the spring of 2013, I was up and down grieving after the death of my wife Annie of 30 years, who if not 120% perfection as a woman and a partner, was at least an unarguable 150%.  I was living alone in a big 4-bedroom farmhouse, a short way out of a small NE Cumbrian market town. My daughter Ione was at Leeds University for the first year after Annie died, then working in Leeds and latterly in Poland doing TEFL, aka Teaching English as a Foreign Language. What kick-started me out of my protracted stagnation, was that in March of 2013, I went to see her in beautiful Wroclaw, Poland and we had one hell of a time, both there and in the vibrant jazz-capital of Krakow. You might say it was the impetus of travel and as the Irish say ‘furren parts’, that gave me the right kind of energetic shot in the arm. Then followed an invigorating long weekend in Oxford seeing some close and very old friends, and after that a truly revelatory and very touching month in Albania and Kosovo, again with Ione. By then I was well on the road to having cast off any loneliness, but that said, I would bet a small fortune that if I’d stayed on in the UK, I would eventually have lapsed back into its hellish embrace.

Most fortunately for me, I was victim of an unusual and never declared tokenism, in the form of  institutionalised academic prejudice. I decided at first to make an income and support myself to stay in the UK, by applying for Creative Writing Lectureships in about 6 different English universities. I had after all published 10 books, some of them acclaimed by the likes of DJ Taylor, Jonathan  Coe and Adam Mars-Jones. I had also been long-listed for the Booker in 2003; had won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories; and had in all about 25 years experience of teaching Creative Writing at Cambridge University (Madingley Hall) and the Arvon Foundation. None of that as it turned out mattered a flying  shite, and right enough it was  a complete waste of time me putting in those six mile-long applications to the half dozen universities. The reason was not because I am certifiably one of the lowest of the low, i.e. a  risible West Cumbrian, but because I did not have a PhD, a sine qua non of getting any kind of teaching job, in any kind of university, however third  rate the university might be. I happen to know a fair number of people who teach Creative Writing in UK universities, and aside from the fact that some of them have published very little, and certainly nothing of awesome distinction, I wouldn’t let them loose keeping canaries, much less shape the prose or verse of any neonate writer of just possible genius.  It is a harsh diagnosis but it happens to be true. If they had a student who was a genuinely massive talent, they wouldn’t recognise as much, and even if they did, they would not know how to help him or her. Ambitious and insecure literary  careerists, whose notion of towering achievement is to have two novels that have been both been praised not uneffusively on sweet as the sunlight Mme Frostrup’s whirligig bookshow on BBC Radio 4, such people cannot help the outstandingly talented, or even any very original students, any more than a timid and conformist and jobbing violinist could ever have instructed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

So, instead of staying in  Cumbria to fail to live on dwindling savings and non-existent welfare benefits, I came to Greece to start a fiction teaching business. From that day on, the 2nd of September 2013 precisely, I have I promise you, never felt lonely or depressed or isolated for even five minutes. As I’ve said, had I stayed in my vast and echoing North Cumbrian farmhouse, I would eventually have had a bellyful of being on my own, and would not have known how to remedy the inevitable loneliness. As for my unvarying happiness here on Kythnos, it might sound supine and smug, but in my defence I am in many ways as baffled as anyone else by the miracle. Why exactly my happiness and contentment should be so, is not easy to analyse in facile 1 plus 1 = 2 terms. My Greek is just and so adequate, inasmuch as I can get whatever I want and hold a simple conversation, but I cannot for example talk intelligently about the byzantine labyrinth of Greek politics, or in the abstract about crucial matters of the emotions, or the psyche, the latter a hallowed and beautiful Greek word you will note. On that basis I could never have a nice little Greek girlfriend here, unless she had incredibly brilliant English, as my Greek could only ever get as far as, Are you OK, and if not, would you like another wine? And then just possibly another one after that? And then why not maybe another teeny weeny little one after that, Sotiria, kopela mou?

This wasn’t intended to be an essay on me  but  a broader survey of  the difference between Solitude and Loneliness, and  as some of us know, the first one can be a real blessing if of creative and flexible duration, and if willed for in the first place. Very briefly though, when not teaching fiction courses, my life in Kythnos amounts to a regular routine of writing for this blog, reading fiction in Greek with the aid of three dictionaries, swimming and sunbathing at nearby Martinakia, and of an evening reading fiction in English and/or zestfully carousing in either the Glaros or the Paradisos. If I had had a routine as regular as that back in the UK, it would have felt oppressive and even prematurely senile, but not so here in Kythnos. That is why I initially said that loneliness and isolation are contextual and situational. Doing a repetitive daily routine called X in NE Cumbria would have driven me rapidly nuts, but a very similar routine called Y in Kythnos, Greece, keeps me incredibly content and dare I say it, now I am doing the blog as well, fulfilled.

But on the tantalising subject of willed for solitude, let’s move from Greece and North Cumbria to India, and the long held spiritual ideal for any pious male Hindu. Once he has faithfully married and tenderly cherished his beloved wife, and raised his children and fulfilled his dharma duties as a grhastha or householder, the truly pious Hindu decides to retire from the world and seek spiritual fulfilment by becoming an aranyaka. What this meant in practice was going into the forest with little but a mat on which to seat himself, there to sit beside a melodious  and serene river and meditate exclusively on the Divine. Pause now and very briefly ask yourself, can you imagine a retired bank manager called Billy Hodgkiss from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, pursuing a similar kind of austerity and dauntless renunciation by the purling brooks that weave their way around balmy old, palmy old  ’twistle? In this connection, somewhere around 1974, daringly scripted by UK Marxist playwright David Mercer, there was a typically radical and angry one-off TV drama (the genus no longer exists, whatever the lustrous buffoons in charge choose to tell you these days) which had a pared to the bone, alienated  and bemused individual played by Alfred Burke, stripping off and donning a loincloth and setting off as  wandering mendicant with a  stick bearing his few possessions, in order, guess what, to embrace solitude and hopefully find himself.  In the current UK context, when your average professional geezer retires, he does his best not to find himself, meaning he either goes in for endless golf, heavy boozing, clinical depression, online poker, or in the working class context, possibly doing nothing more than sitting with his mates all day on the public benches, trying to stave off, you’ve guessed it, loneliness. A few might embrace solitude by doing solo fishing and profit by the surrounding silence of the forest or the seashore, but that is hardly the same as entering the haunting sylvan mysteries to become a hermit. You’ll notice the topic of gender is massively skewed here. Some of the loneliest folk on earth are widowed elderly UK women, who feel unable to go into a pub or even cafe solo, so spend literally days on end seeing nobody but themselves and the television. Thankfully, you get none of that here on Kythnos where family ties are taken seriously, and the old are both included in everything and also have an impressively independent life. Quite regularly in the port you see a bunch of women mates in their 80s and older, having multiple coffees and enjoying themselves uproariously.

As a writer it always makes me laugh when occasionally you hear some fraught UK novelist, let’s call her Pamela Arblaster, dilating on the truly terrible isolation of being that hermetic yet ironically non-hermetic wonder, known as A Lonely Writer Cruelly Chained to her Lonely Laptop. The poor thing is stuck in her service-included London flat with her i-pad, i-phone, cappucino machine, choc digestives and yummy florentines, Radio 4 to hand when she’s stuck on her work of genius and wants to know about mortgage relief tax problems on the Money Programme. Aside from the fact that within walking distance of her flat, there will be a dishevelled homeless woman exactly Pam’s age and also called Pam, living rough in a cardboard box and who definitely knows what the raw edge of cosmic loneliness feels like, there are other minor factors to contemplate. Packing shelves in Asda in the small hours, as certain unemployed postgraduates have to do these days, will not only as a night shift shorten your life, it will also feel a very lonely as well as badly paid experience. One needs also to pull in the historical context. George Eliot, Dostoievsky, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and others, complained about various things in their life, but I don’t remember authorial loneliness and isolation in the practice of their art as part of the checklist. Dostoievsky was a gambling addict who wrote one of the seminal texts on loneliness called Notes from the Underground, but my guess is he was at his least lonely himself when stuck at his desk writing i.e. doing the thing he was born to do. For a few years in the late 1970s I had a fairly lucrative but unfulfilling job teaching an oxymoronic impossibility called ‘Liberal Studies’ in a Cumbrian College of Science and Technology. The entertaining and shamelessly reactionary students were the best thing there, but I was basically itching to be at home writing, regardless of a reliable income or anything else. I therefore felt all too lonely, surrounded by people in the shape of my fellow colleagues, whereas at home at my desk, doing what I wanted to do, isolation was not an issue.

In any case anyone, writer or not, can feel lonely and for perfectly good reasons. The trick is to do something about it, instead of choosing to go day by day down the sink. If you feel lonely as a writer you go out and do some shopping, or you drop in at The Computer Resource Centre as I did in my N Cumbrian town, and did my printing off there, not at home. I would chat to the nice women who worked there, and thereby I had a transient but satisfying social life. Then Annie came home from her business at around 7 most nights, and I always had an elaborate  vegetarian meal ready for her, which I’d prepared late afternoon. Then she died of secondary cancer in December 2009 and that, so to speak, was that.

Even that is not the end of the options for a notionally lonely home-bound author. One woman writer I know neatly side-stepped the issue by invariably writing her novels in longhand in the public library, then getting them typed by someone else. Another novelist I know of very substantial talent, simply did not have a private study, and would therefore compose all his books at the kitchen table, which was of course a thoroughfare for the rest of his clamorous family.

Then there was that illustrious gentleman known as Karl Marx. I was amazed to learn a few years back that he wrote some of his great works without benefit of a study also. As he put it, the kids racing round his table could make as much racket as they liked and it did not bother him. It was only if they addressed him personally, with their, ‘Hey Dad, about this £5/100 marks you won’t lend me’, that things seriously went to pot.

POLTERGEISTS AND PARTY DRESSES

POLTERGEISTS AND PARTY DRESSES

I don’t know what the odds are of the following coincidence, but they must be absolutely colossal. The Greek language has an enormous number of words, as visible in any decent dictionary, so how come immediately and brazenly next to each other, as shall we say natural and most intimate bedfellows, are the following pair:

popos = child’s word for ‘bottom’ or ‘backside’

pordhos = ‘fart’

Does that make you shiver and your flesh crawl as it does mine? It’s a bit like the Greek words for ‘brain’ and ‘thought’ being right next to each other in the dictionary, which of course they are not. It is also a precisely exact analogy, because just as a brain produces a thought, so a backside produces in certain controlled  and occasionally and sometimes gleefully uncontrolled circumstances, a fart.

Most people who meet me for the first time, and even those who know me well, assume without asking that I will not be someone who believes in ghosts. To be sure I have never seen a ghost, unless I count how I look in the mirror after a night on the Greek tiles, where ouzo, Captain  Morgan black rum, cachaca sugar cane rum, rough white wine, rough red wine, dear old lemonade, 6 salted crisp sandwiches, and a very large bar of Greek milk chocolate, are part of the how shall I call it, fearless mix. I do though, know two or three people who have seen or experienced ghosts, and I don’t for even a minute doubt that those reports are true.

The reason is that all those individuals are simply the last people in the world to believe in ghosts, and certainly before they had their supernatural experiences, they would have laughed the idea to scorn. One was a Northumbrian farm-worker in his early twenties who I talked to in a Hexham pub one night. He was a freelance herdsman and his job entailed working on farms all over the north east, and accepting whatever temporary accommodation was offered him. He told me this story in 1979 and the incident he described had occurred in 1976, when he was 25. He was working in the back end of buggery (geddit ) at the arse end (geddit again) of Northumbrian Coquetdale, its best known township  being pretty little Rothbury,  whose sole but considerable deficiency as far as I and my late wife Annie were concerned, was that it did not possess an Indian restaurant.

The herdsman, let’s call him Doug, was  billeted in a very old farm cottage in a remote hamlet along a D road, 20 miles out of Rothbury. That first night after a slog of a day, Doug tumbled into bed, switched off the bedside light, and after no less than ten seconds could both hear and sense sundry objects whizzing around the room. Doug hadn’t been drinking, and he certainly at first did not believe he was experiencing anything of the ludicrously occult. Considerably pissed off by the disturbance, as any knackered herdsman would be, he switched the light on, and observed his wallet was at the opposite side of the room to where he’d put it. An illustrated book on WW2 which he’d been reading in his previous lodgings, was also a mile away from where he’d left it, and furthermore the very heavy book was lying wide open, which it hadn’t been when he unpacked it. Doug’s nerves were very strong, and at first he thought maybe the old farmer’s grandkids had crept in and been fucking about here for a joke. He then reflected that the widowed farmer had neither kids nor grandkids, and had been lamenting the sad deficiency with obvious tears in his eyes only a couple of hours ago.

Not to worry. Maybe he’d got it wrong about where his wallet had been, and whether or not the big WW2 picture book had fallen half open when he took it out of his sports-bag. He switched the light off and trusted that would be the end of it. Far from it. For about another half a dozen increasingly fevered on/off light switches, he was subject to cascading and whizzing objects tearing round his bedroom, which of course are evidence of poltergeists. After about the sixth such upheaval, far from being frightened, he was simply monumentally enraged. He had to be up at 5am, and it was 2am now. Fuck this for a game of cards! is what he bawled to the heedless ceiling in the frenetic pitch dark.

He switched on the light, for no good reason other than to address the poltergeist with full and appropriate venom.

“I don’t know WHO you are. Or WHAT you are.  Or WHY you are. What’s more I couldn’t give a fuck! I JUST WANT YOU TO FUCK OFF BACK TO WHEREVER YOU CAME FROM, YOU FUCKING HELLISH TWAT!”

Sadly, as a DIY exorcism it was not up to scratch, the poltergeist took no heed, and Doug went and slept on a couch in the sitting room. The next day he lied to the old farmer, and said his parents were both on the brink of death, and he must depart forthwith. What’s more, it was a very similar imprecation hurled at an abhorrent but non-poltergeist presence, by a former Creative Writing student of mine, who I worked with about a quarter of a century ago. I was teaching in Cambridge, and this sturdy, doughty and no-nonsense Tyne and Wear woman in her late 60s, was attending one of my summer fiction courses. In the bar one night she described an old house she lived in near Newcastle, where one day when she was hoovering the stairs, she felt the vile but invisible proximity of someone or something who was poisonously angry, wickedly and possibly homicidally brooding, in a manner which she could only describe as Pure Evil. Before that day she thought ghosts and all allied subjects were risible drivel, dreamt up by the cracked and the crankish, and the intellectually deficient. She happened to be a red blooded socialist and a resolutely pugnacious atheist, and the idea of Good and Evil as spiritual forces, had simply never occurred to her, and probably never would.  

After enduring this static and immovable and indescribably repugnant presence, for a full ten minutes, this woman who was called Madge, turned to where she imagined the malefactor without a name and a number and a body, and indeed without a soul, unless it be one that was wicked through and through, fearless old Madge turned herself angrily through 180 degrees, and shrieked:

“YOU CAN BLOODY WELL TAKE YOURSELF OFF! YOU CAN FUCK OFF JUST AS FAST AS YOU LIKE!”

In her case the malevolent spirit did depart, but there is no convincing explanation of why this should have been so. Madge said that after successfully exorcising it, she scrubbed the whole of the staircase with a very astringent carpet shampoo, and maybe something as solid and pragmatic as that did the trick. The third paranormal sighting (and bear in mind that I am all of 64, and have only ever talked to three unwilling and sceptical ghost witnesses, which gives a certain statistical credence to my evidence) was related to me by a pleasant, but very dull and garrulous old man called Dick. Dick was another writing student, gloriously nay miraculously talent-free, but not a whit abashed on that score. He lived in North Yorkshire near Scarborough, and had bought on retirement in remote countryside for a virtual song, a veritable mansion of crumbling 17th C vintage, that no one else wanted. Dick lived there with his wife and two dogs, and that was it. He was about 75, and though very dull, was not naively credulous about things unseen, and certainly not a fan of the other world, not for that matter was his still good-looking but matter of fact wife Julia. At any rate both Dick and Julia separately, but never together, had seen the same extraordinary sight, viz. a veritable pageant of gaily partying young folk, all in their twenties and thirties, dressed in 1920s fashionable upper crust clothes, parading around the mansion that was called The Steadings. They seemed to be engaged in a permanent whoopee knees-up, and seemingly quaffing and gormandizing from an invisible table. They were after the first sighting, not at all frightening, and indeed the first time Dick saw them, he and Julia had come back from a fortnight’s holiday, and he whimsically thought they were the previous tenants having a fancy dress party in a too ideal location, without seeking the new owner’s permission. He was about to walk over, and not exactly chide them, but look a little reproving, and as he made the first admonitory step, they vanished into thin air. Variations on the same rather sedate and harmless pageant, happened umpteen times over, both for Dick and Julia, till in the end they stopped worrying and just accepted the house had its family ghosts.

So how to explain this other worldly stuff with any degree of satisfying objective rigour? Alas there is no conceivable way of doing this, and seemingly all that leaves you with is the cheery pseudo-science of beaming charlatans and unreformed eejits. Unless perhaps, you listen to the more quietly spoken ones, who try to be stringently honest, but are inevitably  more anecdotal than empirical. If you believe as I do in the Afterlife, there is no problem. Those at peace, meaning blessed and supremely trusting souls, vanish into the encompassing Love of the Divine, and are too far from the enmeshments of the crass phenomenal world, to leave any physical manifestations. Troubled, grief-stricken, love-torn, disturbed, and above all tormented and very wicked souls, possibly fugitive murderers or fugitive rapists or fugitive sadistic paedophiles, they cannot hide their physical traces, and on occasion, and as indicated by place, location, specificity, meaning the precise place on earth where the grief or rape or murder happened, their visible nature is revealed, if only transiently and as a one-way model that does not permit of dialogue between the ghost and its observer.

No doubt the bulk of you think this is dyed in the wool and uncompromising bollicks. But there is one way to prove it either way, and once you die and go to the beyond, you will then see, or in your book you will die and you will see nothing at all.

We shall see, shall we not?

DOES MY ARSE LOOK DAFT IN THIS?

DOES MY ARSE LOOK DAFT IN THIS?

I have written in candid wonderment about Greek fashion before, or at any rate as it is manifested here in Cycladean Kythnos. Yesterday however I was truly stunned beyond stunning, to see a handsome young woman and mother, who looked as if her fashion designer was no other than me Kyrio Anglos John, when well afloat on a litre or so of firewater raki. Her husband of about thirty-five who was the very double of the homely and eternally boyish British actor, Phil Daniels, was certainly discordant in his own attire. He was sporting a pair of decent and expensive denims, topped by an old-fashioned golden cord jacket, as worn by go-ahead Cumbrian chemistry teachers circa 1968 i.e. 12 years before he was born. His wife though, who really was a strikingly alluring woman in her late twenties, had the following bizarre sequence starting top-wards down:

A glaringly crimson red cape or cloak (and it was bloody well hot sunshine apart from all else) which stopped at the very top of what meandered down below. It surmounted a pair of impossibly tight and electric grey leggings, which looked as if they had been painted onto her skin rather than pulled over her legs. The glistening leggings were decorated with a kind of paisley pattern, that might have zoology-wise resolved into single cell paramecia or other ‘slipper animalcules’. To be sure I shouldn’t have been looking at her figure, seeing she was with her doting husband and her two year-old son, but the super-tight protozoan  leggings showed every minute aspect of her mesmerising  Greek legs and sumptuous  behind. In my defence, given that the blinding crimson cloak did not even slightly cover the top of the leggings, why would she be wearing something so profoundly skin-tight, unless she were trying to draw the attention of the gaping universe to her beautiful Greek legs and bottom? Parenthetically, what did Kythnos’s Phil Daniels twin feel about all this fearless erotic display on the part of his handsome young wife, who was obviously a very good and conscientious mother? Finally, and anticlimactically, at the base of this baroque assemblage, was a pair of high-heeled shoes that were black and squat and amateurishly designed, most evidently as she teetered her way very awkwardly through the port with child and husband in tow.

I am, and you will amazed by this, no raging fashion icon myself, but if anything, as a matter of self-protective instinct, I favour harmoniously  matching colours. I know contrasting colours can be done to good effect if you are a fashion expert, and know what you are doing, and of course you can even go and have your colours ‘done’, by someone an expert in diagnosing the best very and most harmonious  chromatic nuances, for you and you alone. But why did this young woman think that bright crimson sat next to silvery grey with a scattered slipper animalcule pattern, looked anything but mad? What’s more, while writing this piece in the Cafe Paradisos, I have glanced at two TV programmes where both male presenters are dressed like florid imbeciles. One is a bloke of late twenties who is interviewing a celebrated fish chef on the Isle of Naxos. The interviewer has a tightly bound jacket-cum-sweater that oddly reminds me of buttonless wool coats as brought back from Nepal by UK hippies circa 1973. After that the resemblance changes to a kind of cloth chain-mail of a knight errant, and where the colouring is alternating dark red, white and burnt sienna. It looks wholly and gratuitously nuts, and one wonders why grinning yet earnest Vangilis the presenter, does not realise he looks like a Hellenic Sir Lancelot on his leisurely  return from high plateau Nepal. Switch now to a soporific TV monologue from an Athens academic of around 58, who is dilating on Greek history, specifically the Tourkokratia or Turkish occupation. He has a Bertie Wooster cummerbund of flimsy grey silk, above a thick white sweater that is patterned with pink zig-zagging lines. If I was one of his students I would insist on having all my essays re-marked, on the grounds that a silken loony like this is so unstable he cannot add up the marks, much less make a cogent critical judgement on anyone’s academic essay.

A  month or so ago I talked about the liberating anthropological idea of Structuralism, which is about getting yourself imaginatively and completely inside the subject or person you are studying, and to look out at the world from their singular point of view. The other and clearly flawed option is to survey everything from the outside, and impose your own extraneous judgement from without, perhaps with a Marxist or Conservative or Freudian or Evangelical Christian perspective. That said, most acclaimed intellectual theory, and certainly most anecdotal pub discourse, sheep-wise follows the latter reductive route, and it is all about assessment, judgement, and external imposition of values. On an enlightening structural basis, we can conclude that what I regard as examples of idiotic and insensitive Greek fashion, are not so experienced by the subjects themselves. These folk in Kythnos and Athens are not perverse, and do not hate themselves, and self-evidently they think they look really great, and are doing their best to look as really great as they can. On that reading then, how do they look at me and my quiet and understated and matching greens and blues and browns? Maybe I look like a worryingly colourless Anglos ghost to them, and they think I would look so much better, and so much more Greek, with a Midas golden cord jacket, and maybe vivid amoeba-studded silver leggings that would emphasise my excellent hips and magnificent buttocks. Maybe just one of these days I will go across and ask Phil Daniels and his wife what they think. Or maybe I will not.

A fascinating and related issue, is the notion of who in this world, thinks they are the most modern and most up to date, and contemporary, vis a vis all previous generations. The answer, I would bet my shirt on it, is that every generation since time began, thinks they are the most au fait and up to date  of all time. In fashion terms alone, the 1980s generations laughed at the punk styles of the late 70s, with all those snazzy suits and truncated, tapered haircuts on the jigging masculine heads. The punks in turn laughed at the early and mid 70s flares and kipper ties and bouffoned hairstyles, and the latter likewise pissed themselves at the mid 60s hippies with floral shirts, arse long hair, and a total rejection of the up till then universal cosmopolitan notion of personal tidiness. The hippies creased up at the conformist early 60s and National Service 50s, with short back and sides or occasional crew cut or neck-shave, but possibly paid grudging homage to Elvis lookalikes with drainpipe kecks, long sideburns and flapping skirted jackets. Forget about clothes for a while, but this serial superiority to all previous generations is certainly the case in most western cultures, and it is really only in certain parts of the East and especially Hindu society where veneration of tradition and antiquity is a sine qua non. Studying Sanskrit was a real eye-opener for me, because essentially in classical Hindu culture, new and innovative thinking was regarded as a fairly absurd and heretical  idea. Much better to write endless commentaries on the flawless Ancient Sages, those who with an ear to the wisdom of the patron Hindu deities, had written with a final definitiveness on Medicine, Maths, Astronomy, Poetry, Philosophy, Polity, Law and Erotics. Seeing the work had already been done to quasi-divine perfection, the only task of subsequent generations of scholars was to explain the inscrutable and sometimes gnomic and cryptic originals to the following generations. This of course is the exact opposite of the western intellectual tradition, which is to prize innovation and the overturning or at least serious extrapolation and emendation, of the greats of the past, Isaac Newton and Galen included.

So far I have concentrated on fashion as an index of the last word  in modernity, and cutting edge and pioneer innovation, never to be surpassed. But the same obviously holds true of digital technology and science. Those born after about 1985 simply cannot remember a world without computers, internet, and mobile/cell phones. The idea that you find out about things by going to the library and consulting encyclopaedias, strikes them as more deeply tragic than loudly laughable. In 2013, I was able in Albania to watch my favourite mostly US jazz groups on YouTube, thanks to the fact that poverty-stricken Albania has one thing it can afford, internet cafes. Rreshen in Miredita with population 15,000 had five gorgeous  and spacious state of the art examples, while the rest of the town was run down, squalid and very sad. But as late as say 1990, I couldn’t have had anything like that You Tube jazz access, in either New York or London, could I?

Not only does the internet permit you to find out classic encyclopaedia information, it allows you to seek out the wholly arcane and specialised, which  no reference book is ever going to yield. A few years back I had, thanks to the local Cumbrian tandoori carry-out place, and my profound inability to hit my mouth, copious turmeric stains all over my favourite denims. I was about to ring several friends to seek anecdotal advice, and of course I would first have asked the tandoori restaurant, but they were not open during the day. However I then  recalled the good old internet, though thinking to myself, surely this is far too specialised even for it. Instead when I googled ‘How to Get Turmeric Out of Clothes’ I got about 5 million hits. In the end I opted for the easiest, which was to soak the denims in cold water, and then hang on the washing line in bright sunshine. It did the trick and that was that. Until, that is, I saw Ali the head chef at the tandoori , the following Thursday Special Night, where you got enough to feed a thousand hungry  rugby players for all of £8.95.

“How do you guys get turmeric out of your clothes?”I asked him earnestly man to man, and then told him that I had found out a huge number of answers from the internet.

He looked  at me wonderingly. “I’ve no idea. We send all our laundry stuff to specialists in Newcastle. But please John, do tell me what the proper answer is. I would love to know.”

So, right enough, those born post 1985, have little or no experience of a world where the only way of communicating quickly abroad, was by prohibitively expensive and unreliable telephone. With emails, now you can hold a copious  and highly effective hotmail exchange between say Greece and Taiwan in five minutes, and via Skype at very little cost if any, you can see your little Martian pal in his or her little box at the other end of the universe. It is a banal observation now, but going back to the pre-net days it would all have seemed like glib sci-fi of a fairly unconvincing order.

And to repeat what truly counts. Every generation always feels that it is the most contemporary and progressive of all generations, simply by dint of being the very latest generation, nothing else.  This applies not just in modish and volatile things like fashion, but in technology, transport and almost every aspect of human endeavour. Even truly stunning previous innovations like the early TVs or the early telephones, seem sadly, even tragically comical, in their Professor Branestawm clumsiness and ugliness. A little humble reflection would soon get us to acknowledge that the remarkable achievements without any gizmos or gadgets by ancient Arab culture in Mathematics and Medicine, and by Classical India in both Maths and Astronomy, are enough to make us bow down in abject reverence to a wisdom and an inventiveness a long way ahead of ours. Sadly, the one and only thing any contemporary generation  might bow down to with a due humility, is the Future Generation. The trouble is that unlike everything in the past, which we effortlessly and, unconsciously patronisingly know all about, we are not clairvoyants, and we truly have no idea what it will be like. We can do the old TV stunt qua Tomorrow’s World of devoting a programme to likely future innovations, but that can only be predicated on what we know already. And while plenty of folk might pre 1990 have fantasised about something that gave what we know now as the internet i.e. easily available and instantly accessible encyclopaedic and non-encyclopaedic  knowledge, nobody knew precisely what shape that phenomenon would take. Cables under the sea, you hazard, back in 1990? Kiss my analogue as opposed to my digital ass…

Finally and getting back to fashion. You might qua Structuralism, as I said earlier, understand the truest existential version of seemingly appalling fashion taste, by getting imaginatively inside the person sporting the pantomime absurdity. However this still does not allow for the fact that there are people, who, while doing their best to look as nicely turned out as they can, within their own considered fashion terms, are not at all sure whether they look quite as nice as they would hope. In this context, it is worth examining the fashion dialectic that obtained between my mother and my Aunty Maggie, back somewhere around 1975 i.e. a scant 40 years ago. Aunty Maggie was not my aunty, but my mother’s cousin, and she and my Uncle Willy were childless. This of course contrasted with my mother, who had four sons of which I was the youngest aka the truly delectable baby. One consequence of having no kids, was that Maggie and Willy had  a considerable amount of disposable income, and even more heartening, Willy who doted on Maggie, and thought that the Sun, another Deity like her, shone from her West Cumbrian fundament, could not get enough of spoiling her with luxury presents. As a result, the pair of them would often motor up (yes that’s right, they didn’t drive up, they motored up) to county seat Carlisle, and spent a fortune on the most expensive clothes they could for Maggie. They did this so often that Maggie accumulated ten lorry loads of splendid garments, and eventually ran out of wardrobe space, and in some cases never got round to wearing the lustrous apparel anyway, there was just so much of it.

Cue my mother then, now and again being invited not to take her pick of these regal vestments, but for Maggie to give her what she specifically would deem the most fitting i.e. what fashion expert Maggie assumed would suit my unworldly apprentice mother, on the basis that my mother not having a free hand to buy exactly what she liked, would best be guided by someone who did.

The truly wonderful thing though, was that Maggie did not express her aesthetic approbation, apropos my mother trying something on, in cheery positive terms, but exclusively in modified negative ones. So that when for example my mother tried on a sumptuous  and costly  hat from Carlisle’s finest milliner, and to anyone but Maggie looked very smart in it, Maggie would declaim:

“Mm? That’s mebbe OK. The thing to remember is, you don’t look daft in it. Mm. Yes. No don’t worry. You don’t look too soft in it. So it’s maybe worth you taking that one back home with you.”

When I first started writing this piece, and I pondered early on Maggie’s singular habit of aesthetic praise by careful application of negatives, I thought to myself this would be a nice humorous  coda to the piece, if only because it is so comically if touchingly absurd. However I am instead  thoroughly undone and comprehensively unhinged, now that I have written Maggie’s words, and seeing that far from propounding an example of comic litotes, Maggie was actually a genius when it came to overwhelming aesthetic nuance and absolute critical rectitude. Maggie whose principal intellectual refreshment was People’s Friend and the now sadly defunct Reveille and Tit-Bits,  overwhelmingly was more right than anyone else I have ever known, eminent French anthropologists and acclaimed cultural critics from all over the globe included.

Know why? Because her fashion poetics could not have been more piercingly accurate, if she had had ten PhDs in anthropology from every university from Tubingen to Toronto to Tokyo. Let’s face it, we all of us everywhere in the world, do NOT dress up to a notional elevated fashion level, and a sense of subjecting ourselves to an external critical aesthetic much less our own internalised aesthetic. No siree.

Instead, and it was my good old Aunty Maggie first discovered this,  we all of us dress after the manner, albeit within our own subjective terms no doubt, that assures us that we end up NOT LOOKING DAFT.

THE ALGEBRA OF LOVE

THE ALGEBRA OF LOVE

Dedicated with much love to M.S. who grew up in Venezuela

As a small West Cumbrian child I was famed for my powers of mental arithmetic. Perhaps it gave a future augury of me being ‘mental’, in various interesting directions, and it is indeed a strange idea that the ability to do sums in one head, is a function of the mind, whereas other types of computation are not. Does that mean all other arithmetic is not mental, but somatic or spiritual or computed in the ether? That said when in 1958 aged 7, I had to compute how much change out of £5 I got, after buying 5 lbs of cabbage at 7 and a farthing(quarter) old pence per pound, 10 pounds of brussel sprouts at 9 and half old d (Roman denarii would you believe as the etymological explanation of  the old d pence) plus 5 stones of flour at 4d per pound (there are 14 pounds in a stone for the neophyte ignoramuses among you) I could do the whole thing in my head in about 20 seconds. Yet even as I did so, I thought the whole baroque rigmarole a truly outrageous crock of malodorous excrement, even though at that age I had never heard of ‘outrageous’ or ‘crock’ or ‘malodorous’, or ‘excrement’. It is just that nobody in the memory of man ever went to buy all that absurdly motley culinary paraphernalia, replete with a five pound note which in 1958 was as rare as an Extraterrestrial Alien.

What I dimly sensed at that sentient age of 7, was that a great many perverse and infinitely depressing and pathologically dreary  adults, were how can I put it as decorously as possible, were a bunch of ad hoc and deplorable and wholly detestable cocksuckers, who spent their time dreaming up drivelish and pointless  problems for kids like me, for no sound purpose other than to turn me into another zestless adult and cocksucker clone, exactly like themselves. Needless to say I had never heard the word ‘cocksucker’ until I was 48 and a farthing, I mean a quarter. If that sounds gratuitously shocking, be aware it expresses about a hundredth of the retrospective disgust and abhorrence I feel, for all the time I have wasted in so called scholastic intellectual endeavours  in the only life that I have. While we are at it, and in terms of my computing how far from a fucking lighthouse x was when the tangent or cosine or sine of the angle of inclination of him gawking at the revolving light, when x was meanwhile performing joyous sex with his equally joyous Greek Arvanitika Albanian girlfriend, who had just that day bought 5lbs of parsnips at 500 Albanian lek per Greek oka, the answer to that is look up your own sunny resoundingly British arsehole and see if you can see any hallucinatory daylight, because I alas emphatically cannot. That’s one reason at any rate why in the autumn of 2013, I left the UK for lovely old Greece. Enough said.

Once I entered secondary school, meaning  the Grammar School, meaning that most punctiliously sound place that taught you never to say ‘I have went ’, aka The  Brothel on the Hill, things changed dramatically. Mental arithmetic vanished from the syllabus, and in any case you had logarithm tables and you were subject to vast amounts of geometry and algebra, both of which I grew to hate. It might have been different but our first form teacher was a wholly incredible and imponderable lunatic called Miss Lilian Puckridge. Her first name should have been Lilith, as she had a truly demonic temper, made all the worse by the fact she alternated sweet and sour, saccharine and incendiary, which is far worse than being a fearlessly foul-tempered maniac 24/7. The 5th form and upwards most inventively called her Fuckridge, and the rest of us dubbed her Puckers which come to think of it sounds far more floridly obscene than Fuckridge. Puckers at a guess was early sixties when I started at the Brothel on the Hill  in 1962, so safe to say she was born around 1900. She taught both Maths and Art to the younger kids only, as she only had a teacher training qualification and no degree, hence could not sport an academic gown as all the other teachers were obliged to do. She often wore her floral art blouse in maths which ought to have indicated she was relaxed and flexible, but alas it was the very opposite.

As a sample of her gothic crackedness, behold the fact that if you innocently addressed her as ‘Please Miss’…she went bright red bananas and bawled at you:

“It is please Miss Puckridge, not please Miss! You wouldn’t say to a male teacher, Please Mister, would you?”

I was half ready to point out that all the married women teachers were quite happy to be addressed as ‘Please Miss’, and of course we never hailed them as ‘Please Mrs’, nor would we have shouted from the far end of the room ‘Please Mrs Warbelow’, a fair haired and gentle geography teacher of considerable grace and handsomeness and about 30, who set my standard of female beauty for about the next 500 years.

The Please Miss foible, was as nothing compared with her other splendidly anal retentive habit of urging us to save money for the school in a highly practical, if rather too minimalist way. Recall that any standard lined exercise book has about an inch of unruled space at the top. Puckers had a truly revelatory vision in her blameless spinster bungalow one night, where someone from Another And More Economical World, came to her and said, Please Miss, oops I mean Please Miss Puckridge! Look here, if you get the kids to take a ruler and a pencil, they can divide that wasteful space in half and add an extra line to write on, thus saving ooh 17s 11d by the time they have graduated with their A levels  at 18 in 1969, and then multiply that by 700 kids, and you have…and Puckers got out her log tables once the ingenious aerial being had left her chambers, and saw that it was a very great sum indeed.

I dropped down the class badly under her instruction  and it was partly because as well as being filthy tempered she was borderline inaudible. When showing us how to solve simple equations she would invariably say, Gather Like with Like, and then Change The Sign and Add. So with 3x + 3  =  2x +10, you would get the xs on one side and the numbers on the other and 3x-2x = 10-3 and x = 7. It is at the age of 64 a veritable piece of piss to solve this beauty, but back in 1962 I wasn’t even sure exactly what Puckers had said. She might have said Change The Sight and Add, or Change the Shite and Add, or Change The Batteries and Listen to good old Radio Luxembourg, for all I knew. As for geometry, even at 64, and acknowledging objectively that they are inanimate and not magical symbols, I still detest the in-circle, the e-circle and the circumfuckingcircle. They are no use to anybody and never will be, but they expertly plagued the endless and fruitless summer examination evenings of that beautiful June of 1963.

One day Puckers’ temper really got the better of her, and catastrophe ensued. Some sadist had assigned her to supervise a massive number of kids of all ages, all of whom had finished their summer exams, some of them getting as much as a fearlessly carefree 1% in Maths, whether taught by Fuckridge or not. We were all foregathered in the assembly hall, and it was only thus because  a great many teachers were off school, laid low with a bug, and to have us all under one roof was the sole practical solution. No impudent bug would have dared assault much less conquer dear old Puckers of course, or she would have put the bastard in detention. In among the hundred or more kids were some real bad ass 5th formers, 5R or 5 aptly named Remove, who being irremediable blockheads who called Shakespeare ‘Shitespeare’, and were pushed towards leaving school to learn a trade, spent so much time doing woodwork and metalwork, some of them had recognisably turned into walking jackplanes and animate fish slices. They weren’t of course remotely frightened of Puckers, and were soon making as much racket as possible, while she stormed the length of the assembly hall, huffing and puffing and ranting and shouting. Having spotted specific trouble makers, she furiously told them to visit the Head at 4pm, so that these wily deviants of an expert Masonic order, decided to make their defiance known in the form of an ingenious display of home-grown ventriloquism. They started to chorus a hideously loud hum in short, their lips motionless and only their throats working brilliantly like Australian aborigines, like the legendary 70s recordings of Gordon Gulumbara for example, or like those Mongolian herdsmen who do virtuoso laryngeal yodelling.

Only for so long did Puckers stand this hideous racket of a thousand buzzing hornets, hornets on an ascending piercing scale, and not unlike the charmless din of one of those avant garde composers they used to have very late on the old and non-prostituted BBC Radio 3. The programme was called Music In Our Time and whenever it came on the loyalest of listeners all switched it off with trembling hands, and I believe its regular audience was four, and that was just the Mums of the Starkly Enigmatic String Quartet making that majestic caterwauling in the name of innovatory art, and even those loyalest of Mums wore earplugs. Yes, to be sure. Yes. So what did Puckers do when the noise was  driving her mad but she had no way of pinpointing the culprits? Simple as the construction of an e-circle when one is good and drunk. Puckers took hysterics, as having exhausted all her bawling and yelling possibilities, she had no other safety valve left. Puckers danced her incandescent rage on the spot, and it was genuinely the only time I had ever seen this happen outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Unfortunately for her, she happened to be dancing in front of a free-standing  blackboard, meaning it was an easel with pegs plus board. Puckers’ Dance of the Seven Circumcircles, was so violent and so enraged, that it agitated the varnished floor below the blackboard, and shook it so competently that the pegs shot loose,  the blackboard fell forward and resoundingly clattered old Puckers on the back and head, propelling her into hysterical insensibility. At once, the whole of the assembly room went into belly clutching  hilarity, and she had to be carried away by two female members of staff and made to lie down in the rest room.

These days I still practice mental arithmetic, but not for any useful or pragmatic purpose. I am addicted to computing years and age differences, both of family and friends and of musical and literary heroes. For example HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and DH Lawrence were born in 1866, 1867 and 1885 respectively. As I was born in 1950, that means had they lived that long (Wells died 1941, Lawrence in 1930, and Bennett I shall google methavrio) they would have been 84, 83 and 65 respectively when I came into the world. As I am 64 now, that means Lawrence who died of TB aged 45, would have been my current age, had he been around in the year that I was born. You might think this an absurd and fruitless diversion on my part, but I find it gives me a chronological relationship with those writers which does mean something poetic and beguiling to me, though I know not precisely what. Or maybe I am just full of torrentially eloquent shit, who knows? When I turn to music, I know John McLaughlin ace world jazz guitarist, who hails from bloody old Doncaster, UK, was born in 1942, so is now incredibly 72 or 73. It really matters to me to know what age my guitarist hero is at any point in time. For long he has been an adherent of some Hindu-derived sect as witnessed by two of his bands called the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti.  That means in the light of Hindu cosmic yugas or incalculable aeons, he probably has very little interest in chronological time, much less how old he is himself, yet I his non-Hindu adherent do have that obsessive and unintelligible bias.

Let’s move to the present. Just down the road here in the Kythnos port I have two elderly neighbours. The wife Sotiria at a guess is maybe 72, where her husband Kostas, she informed me yesterday is 87. Kostas looks ill and worn and is a markedly sad sight. He often sits all day outside his house, still  in his pyjamas with his flat cap and a weak wave for all friendly passers-by. His eyes are very red and inflamed. She tells me he has heart problems, and I feel more than sad if only because of the struggling generosity of his effortful wave. On autopilot while talking to Sotiria, I began doing my truly mental mental arithmetic, and calculated that when I started at the Brothel on the Hill in 1962, Kostas was only 34 years old, a young and wild and agile man, who ran a taverna here in the port as it happened.  So when 62 year-old Puckers was dancing her dance of rage and knocking herself out with a massive aeronautic blackboard, over in forgotten and hopeless West Cumberland, UK, Kostas aged 34 was partying till dawn with his taverna pals, here in the equally forgotten Kythnos in the Greek Cyclades.

I stopped doing my sums and suddenly told Sotiria that I was 64, and she shot back at me immediately:

Na pass ekato!

Live To Be A Hundred!

I told her that I would do my very best, and indeed I definitely intend one day relocating to the fabled Isle of Ikaria of the sexually active, boozing and all night partying Centenarians.

One final and very instructive footnote. It was as late as 2005 when someone who knew the history of the town where the Grammar School was sited, informed me of Please Miss Puckridge’s early biography. Back in 1924, when she worked in her Dad’s haberdashery shop i.e. well before she embarked on any teacher training, she was engaged to the love of her life, a farmer called Roger Bliss. Her doting love for him was legendary, and in those days believe it or not old Puckers was a stunner and a pin-up and a 24 year-old woman to watch. Then Roger the farmer innocently walking the road on his way to his cows, was hit by an out of control grocery van, one of the very few motor vehicles in the village where he lived. Roger Bliss survived three days, and then died and took Puckers’ mortified and ultimately calcified heart with him. My informant told me that Puckers almost died of grief, and in the end it was only the teacher training that her Dad encouraged her to go for, that allowed her to live and breathe again after a very circumscribed fashion.