ZILCH

ZILCH

The other day in my Kythnos kitchen my breadboard split violently asunder, and I was not at all pleased. To be sure,  I barely used it for slicing bread, but as a vegetable chopping board, and in the paltry 11 months of its life, and with 4 mega dinner parties heaving with hungry Kythnos teachers, the number of leeks , onions, peppers, aubergines, courgettes etc chopped upon it have been legion. A friend who was staying bought it for me last May, and in fairness it was the only one in the Hora hardware shop, but it looked both considerably smaller than any UK variety, and also palpably fragile, or do I mean simply worryingly time bound? It had a bloody great knot in the middle of the wood, and that did not augur well. Now that it was in two ugly shards of width 4 inches and 2 inches, the smaller one would be hopeless for anything but a doll’s house kitchen,  and the wider one for cutting  a single small onion, but not for sticking my indispensable cheese grater upon it. The point is I had just acquired a brilliantly sharp kitchen knife made in Turkey, much lauded by the same Hora hardware assistant, who otherwise has no time at all for Turks. But as if to say he knew all about fair’s fair and objectivity, he told me that Turkey was somewhere where they know how to make a  knife that doesn’t pretend to be a bloody old toy one. At any rate, if from then on, bebbing the odd invigorating slug of bargain ksiroerythros dry red, I hacked too carelessly with that Turkish knife on my now delimited 4-inch board, I might end up bloodily and drippingly finger-free, as well as chopping board-reft.

I went without hope to the biggest supermarket in the port, knowing that if I hadn’t wanted a breadboard they would have had 10 different types, all going for a song, and now that I did they would have  nothing, and the dry husband would shrug his shoulders as if to say who needs a bloody chopping board anyway, the point being that he personally had last prepared something in the blah blah always yakking women’s kitchen, when Kythnos was under the yoke of the Ottomans, if not earlier. But luckily they had a nifty Chinese job made out of plastic, and only costing 4 euros, and what’s more, it had a charming photo of a beaming Chinese lady of about 35, beaming precisely because she had a nice breadboard/ pastryboard/ chopping board just like this one, one that would obviously last for 200 years. Come to think of it my mothers’ much used pastry-board was also made out of wood, and was very old indeed, and never showed any signs of wear. But then it had no bloody great knot smack in the middle of its heart of oak, whereas my prematurely kaput one was made of who knows what, long dead Hong Kong hawthorn?

I have known bigger shocks than that though, when things have torn themselves asunder. Just before Annie and I celebrated my 50th birthday in Dublin in October 2000, my white Renault which had been new and stunning in 1988, finally gave up the ghost. As it hiccupped and danced out of the Cumbrian garage with the mechanic Des shaking his wise head, and also washing his wise hands of it, it was making the strangest noise you have ever heard. To me it sounded like a very large factory sink emptying and whistling and glugging as it did, but a dour Geordie man of my acquaintance was walking in my direction and he had a radically different opinion. My window was open and he shouted in with glum yet cheerful concern:

Yah cah  soonds like a hoofah, hinny.

A Hoover? He was bloody right. More of a Hoover than a whistling industrial sink, right enough. In any event, fast forward till Annie and I were back from that riotous and restorative week in Dublin, the Hoover masquerading as a Renault lying inert in our farmhouse courtyard, and I was in desperate need of a car. The same headshaking Des did not shake his unprincipled head at what he managed to palm off on me, which was a 1987 Rover at the maximum book price of £800.  It went fine for about a week, and then started having serious cooling system problems. Apropos of nothing, and certainly not because it was  suffering at me going like the clappers with my steady and relaxed 35mph, motorway and dual carriageway included, the temperature gauge would shoot up, and there is nothing to instil raw panic in you like an overheated engine. I would halt the bastard somewhere convenient, and wait till it cooled, and then set off again, and by a fluke it might behave itself for the next 50 miles. Alternatively like a Strindbergian femme fatale, or a whinnying skittish mare, it might decide to please its bloody self, and boil up within 50 reluctant yards. Des who used to shake his hairy, beardy head about 50 times a day, for various earnest diagnostic reasons, shook it twice, and eventually concluded my car needed  a new cooling system. He booked it in the next morning, installed it for a few hundred quid, and a week later it was still boiling up, and to be honest by now, so was I.

But that was the mere aperitif, the hors d’oeuvres and mezzes and antipasti, to the entree that was succulently to come. One day in 2001 I was driving towards the same garage for petrol, when  the car literally collapsed.  I had no idea what had happened, but it was exactly as if someone had dropped a massive but invisible boulder on the car, so that the unfortunate Rover’s back had been broken. Clearly the vehicular vertebrae had gone, and it no longer cohered as a car. Des,  who was after all the unprincipled bastard who had sold me this now sadly quadraplegic Rover, wandered leisurely across, shook his head three and a half times, and advised me the drive shaft had gone. Doubtless age, he added with such patience and philosophy, no doubt wear and tear. I conjured with that a while, thinking I at 50 have had a fair bit of wear and tear, but I don’t expect my spinal cord to shatter just as I walk towards the Coop to buy a Mars Bar, do I? To cap all, he told me he was up to his eyes with repairs, and couldn’t possibly see to me now. I was bloody speechless and frankly incendiary. I got out, pushed past him, picked up the phone next to his counter, and rang the only other garage in town. Luckily they were a specialist recovery outfit, used to removing crashed cars after an accident. They were there within ten minutes, and had it carted away and a new drive shaft sorted within a couple of days. They also had courtesy cars, which is more than bloody old head-wagging Des ever had. However I am not going to continue the panegyric of these recovery saviours, as about a year later the Rover drive shaft went a second time, which can only mean that the one they put in was a second hand one, riddled with the metallurgical equivalent of advanced woodworm.

But Annie and I were arguable wide-eyed eejits in the last month of 1982, when we decided to buy an aged car just because it looked so petite and so enchantingly sweet. It was a Baby Fiat from 1968, year of the Paris riots and the Beatles song Revolution, and also the cruel invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets. A year full of drama, both revolutionary and reactionary, and true to say that our Baby Fiat was both of those things also. We were living in Oxford, and we bought it from a man I’d known as  a student a decade earlier. He was a jazz guitarist of considerable repute, and had performed late at night on BBC Radio 3, so self-evidently this guy after my own heart, as he surely was, could only be offering us a car that would delight, inform and educate. We bought it for £400, the day before we set off north for a West Cumbrian Christmas, and by a still inexplicable miracle, it got us there no problem. Once reached Cumbria though, it decided it had done its contractual job, and it staggered and broke down umpteen times between the various foci of our families and our friends. At length a mechanically savvy acquaintance, told us that it all down to the fan belt and the shims. The shims, peculiar to Baby Fiats, were funny little metal flanges that you removed when there were compression problems. So any problem, you took out a shim, and then the thing sorted itself after a benign entropic fashion, is how I recall the memorably inscrutable  S Level Physics puzzler some 33 years on. The problem  was our particular Baby Fiat currently had no bloody shims at all, meaning they had all been removed to sort the numerous previous 14 years of problems, but in doing so they had left behind only a ghostly shim memory, and even two wishful thinkers like Annie and me, knew that you could not run a  car on the incorporeal memory of a gizmo, but you needed the corporeal gizmo itself to do the job. To accelerate and edit the touching story, on the 250 mile return journey, we had to be towed off the motorway no less than five times by the AA. Miraculously we made it through Oxford itself to our Iffley Road bedsit, and precisely ten yards away where we parked it, it gave up its 1968 Italian soul, and never moved again a single inch. The bespectacled guy who lived next door, knew all about cars, and he took a smart little gauge and determined that assuredly the gorgeous Baby Fiat car had absolutely nil compression, or in his words ‘zilch’.

It was the first time I had ever heard the strange word zilch in January 1983, and from then on I would never be able to forget it.

SUCH LOVELY SMELLS

SUCH LOVELY SMELLS

The sense of smell is universally recognised as one of the most evocative of all. Almost always if you get a flashback to a remote childhood memory, there will be a trace of an odour there, and the more elusive it is, the more profoundly tantalising. In my case I actually feel if I could grab hold of that long lost and gently intoxicating odour, I would somehow be able to experience the intense yet wholly innocent joys of infancy. At times like this I would give a small fortune to be able to smell the paper of a big blue and pink hardcover book called Fireside Stories, that I was reading on the floor of our tenderly festive parlour, Christmas 1954, aged 4, for certainly the smell of the book was as vast a joy as the mesmerising tales within.

I have been thinking about smells a good bit lately. Bafflingly more than anything else, I have observed that someone in the port who works with the public at close quarters, a 50 year-old bar owner called Apostolis, has not changed his sweater for a whole 15 days. I  tried but could not get this singular fact out of my mind, so put the powerful enigma in an email to a highly perceptive friend in the UK. She is a very generous, far-sighted  and extremely kind woman, and  suggested that maybe he had a t-shirt underneath, and that he washed and changed that every day. Mm, it was indeed a very charitable, but oddly over-elaborate explanation. I tried to imagine myself applying the same unintelligible, arguably obsessive-compulsive, laundering regime. I must wash and change a t-shirt every day, in order to keep the next layer, my sweater, pristine? In that case why not wash the fucking old sweater just the once, and pick up another clean sweater, and to hell with the supererogatory and even worse smelling t-shirt? Even if my friend’s theory was the case, anyone who saw Apostolis’s unchanging vividly striped over-garment, would be ignorant of his daily washed under-garment (unless he had a handy little printed poster neatly taped to his back, confessing as much in both Greek and English) and ask themselves why the hell hadn’t he changed that bloody old, manky old sweater of his? He has after all plenty of pullovers at his disposal, which I have observed over the years, and as a rule he has changed them with reasonable frequency. So what the hell has got into him in the spring of 2015, that he has decided he needs to be like a tramp or a homeless person, and wear his one and only gansy until Kingdom Come?

The enigma is made no easier by the fact that the temperature is rising (yesterday basking on Martinakia beach I was absolutely boiling) and, under-garment or not, 15 days of Apostolis and his always the same technicolour dreamcoat, are going to raise a bit of a Cycladean hum before long. Add to that he is married and his wife Maria, who cheerfully wears something different every day,  isn’t walking around crippled with shame. My theory there is she doesn’t even notice. because if she did, she would take a flying leap at him, rattle his slovenly ear, and scream at him to go and change the rancid polychromatic sweater, or else. Yet even with her being sunnily oblivious of her husband’s monotonous attire, that doesn’t bode well for her either. Are they jointly going through incipient  and premature dementia, and as she is also 50, that is a hard thing to conjure with, and puts sweaters, striped or not, into a suddenly very shallow perspective?

That said, you should not always knock people who smell, as they can sometimes be extremely handy to you. I myself was the very lucky beneficiary of another man’s lack of personal hygiene, some 36 years ago, in late 1978. Annie, my wife of 30 years, was going out with a teacher before she met me, and that teacher aged 29, had bought himself a bargain ruined cottage in a very remote part of rural Cumbria. Part of the reason for its cheapness was it had no running water. In theory, let’s call him Jim, kept himself clean by using the school facilities including the PE showers, the gym teacher being a good mate of his. In practice, sometimes Jim did religiously shower and scrub, while whistling his innocent joy, but sometimes he  forgot, or was in a rush, and he didn’t, and the net result was that, according to Annie, he ended up decidedly malodorous. She gently told him as much, and he laughed, as if he she was cracking an inconsequential joke, and what was a bit of a hearty old smell, between friends, nay intimates? But if your bedfellow is malodorous, and smells not unlike a rotting cheese, alas that is never going to be a joke, not unless you stink yourself, that is, and even that is no foolproof safeguard, as of course two stinks do not inevitably cancel each other out, any more than two odious bullies, one male and one female, will get on like a democratic house on fire, once they have foolishly chosen to marry. There must be at least 100 minutely different types of BO, all of them highly obnoxious, but in a very different way. So there is a spurious subtlety, even in a patent non-subtlety, because of course body odour, despite its numerous varieties, is anything but refined, subtle and nuanced, and indeed is the very antithesis. At any rate, that was at least one reason for Annie leaving her teacher bloke Jim, and coming to me, and I am indeed very pleased that he assumed he could survive without washing himself, back in 1978.

Cultural differences can also be profound. I once had  a girlfriend called Eugenia living a very long way away from me. After my degree in 1973, I stayed on in Oxford, and was surviving on the remnants of a substantial legacy (courtesy of me having the same name as my paternal grandad) while also trying to write a masterpiece of fiction. Eugenia like me had been a student of Oriental Studies, and was fluent in Farsi aka Persian. She was not Persian herself, but of mixed Uruguayan  and German parentage, and to confuse all, her job teaching  Farsi in a university was in Australia. Our liaison had been for a year in Oxford, and once she was settled in Adelaide, Eugenia  wrote to me, asking for one of my shirts to take to bed with her at night. I was very touched of course, as would anyone else have been, until I read on, and saw she had underlined that it must be an unwashed shirt that had a very ripe smell. I hesitated and then walked over rather gingerly to my laundry basket, and pulled out a soiled shirt at random. I took a cautious sniff, and how can I put it, it would not have enamoured me to me, even if I had been gauging me by very generously lax hygiene standards. This smelly shirt cried out for Omo or Daz or Rinso or even Acdo, though I have a feeling Acdo had vanished off the shelves by late 1973. I played safe and sent Eugenia a  clean shirt which I rubbed very gently along my arms and torso several times, hoping that would effect the appropriate molecular transfer, and permit her to enjoy my odour but not my malodour. But she saw through the white-livered trickery at once, and fired off a petulant missive, saying she wanted a shirt that bloody well smelt or else. That was the beginning of the end of course, but luckily both of us soon found someone else, and she went on to be a Farsi and Pahlavi scholar of world renown.

Finally, everything in the phenomenal world is always relative. Forget about the impressively pyrotechnic  Cumbrian Chernobyl meltdown at Calder Hall in 1957, that was par for the course, if a little less visible than what we were used to, in industrial Cumbria. I was raised in a pit village 25 miles north of Calder Hall, in environmental conditions that if they were happening these days, would have the whole of the adjacent  town council justly slapped between bars.  The seashore of my village up until about 1960, was the recipient of much of the household sewage, and I can still vividly recall joyous toddlers somewhere around August 1958, swimming and paddling next to dancing turds and floating toilet paper. Along the six miles of Solway coast  between Maryport and Workington, there were no less than five massive shit pipes as they were accurately called. There were also two effluent streams right next to each other, pouring into the sea from respectively the coal pit and the chemical works, the latter long established up in the forest a mile inland. The stream from the pit was called the Duff Beck, and its sandy deposits contained lots of coal dust, so that some enterprising village gardeners would dig it up, and use it to heat their greenhouses. The chemical works stream was called the Tar Beck, and of course that described it perfectly, a beck full of tarry, acidic and carcinogenic chemicals, from a factory that synthesised sulphuric acid the old and prehistoric way. Instead of the new contact process with vanadium catalysts, this used coal-derivatives and blindingly yellow raw sulphur and superheated steam. What you got was carbon disulphide which, attacked by the steam, yielded the H2S04. It also gave off vast quantities of a by-product, H2S or sulphuretted hydrogen, also known as hydrogen sulphide. They siphoned off as much as they could make use of, and generously released the rest into the pure and fecund atmosphere of my hallowed village (crying out to be notionally twinned with the village equivalent of Florence or Siena) of a Thousand Shit Pipes and A Million Dancing Turds, and the glorious Duff Beck and the glamorous Tar Beck, tra la la…

Two things worth knowing about H2S, other than its cumulative ecological toxicity. Be aware that they put it in the fume cupboard in any respectable chemistry lab, so it is not exactly as harmless as dolly mixtures or even as nasty old bubble gum…

It combines with certain precious metals, and turns your mother’s silver black, even if it is all inside a protective cabinet, and she is never stopping getting out the Brasso, to get rid of the scale of jet black silver sulphide

It smells supposedly like rotten eggs, and in the atmosphere above your village, especially on a fine summer’s night, you might argue for that bilious comparison. Even more so though, it smells of hideous human farts. Kids in cars driving past, called my shameful village ‘Fartland’, or alternatively would brusquely demand to know who had gone and guffed  in the family saloon

As I say, it’s all relative this business of joyous smells and horrible stinks, of debatably delightful body odours, and of the beautiful and intangibly scented pages of Fireside Stories from Christmas 1954. But all the same, how would you feel, and how would you experience the enduring psychological legacy, if you had spent your formative years in a village called Fartland, that everyone who didn’t live there sneered at, and caused them to tightly hold their noses?

CHEWING THE FAT

CHEWING THE FAT

Assuming that you are older than 25, or even 25 and a half, have you ever come across a remarkable book or a brilliant film, rather late in life, and then gulped at the fact you might never had read it or seen it, and it was a dizzying stroke of luck the two of you ever met? It happens often enough to me, outstandingly in the case of the astonishing novel The Farm Theotime (1945), by the Avignon writer Henri Bosco, who I’d never heard of till I was in my early 50s. Likewise I was 55 before I read  the genius Franz Werfel, third husband of Alma Mahler, the erstwhile wife of Gustav, an Austrian Jew with a fervent admiration for Catholicism, who wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Published in 1933, it is about the much debated persecution of the Armenians by the Turks, and was filmed by an Armenian director in 1982, two other Hollywood versions never having got off the ground because of angry Turkish opposition.

You can either choose to gasp at the fact you almost missed something remarkable, or you can as they say reframe things, and decide that the two of you, the masterpiece and you, were destined to meet, but only according to the superior wisdom of Time and Chance. I certainly think this was the case, when it came to two remarkable TV comedy series which Annie and I jointly discovered, about a year before she died of secondary cancer in late 2009. You could say two brilliantly funny TV series had the pair of us laughing our heads off, at a time, in late 2008, when we emphatically needed, by way of distraction, to be doing precisely that. Both of these series had long vanished from the screen, so you might also argue it was sheer serendipity the way that they were encountered. One was Chewin’ The Fat, an outstandingly original Scottish sketch show which ran from 1999-2002, its first year being broadcast in Scotland only. As far as I know, it was never subsequently aired, as one of those vintage back to back series, on any Sky Comedy Channel. We only learnt of it because in Leeds one afternoon,  when visiting student Ione, I spotted in a charity shop an old video cassette of one of the early series. Something about the superbly stony yet buffoonish mugs of Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, suggested to me these Glasgow guys might well be the authentic comic goods. The other principal star, Karen Dunbar, was on the reverse of the cassette, and though a very handsome woman, has one of those plastic faces with large eyes and expressive mouth, that can magically turn her from touchingly attractive, to something like a gawking macaque monkey in two seconds flat.

The other series was not Scottish but London Irish, which I’m sure will alert most of you to the fact I’m talking about Black Books, which partly overlapped with Chewin’ The Fat, and ran from 2000-2004 on ITV’s Channel 4. I will write about it another time, but in a nutshell Irishman Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) living in London, is the most ferociously misanthropic not to say wine-slugging second-hand bookseller in all of human history. He has Manny (Bill Bailey) as his luckless but ironically ingenious and talented dogsbody assistant, and his blithely scatty shopkeeper neighbour, Fran, as played with great panache and sympathy by Tamsin Greig.  I will deliberately move sideways now to pull in Dylan Moran specifically, because he, like another massive comic talent, the Lancastrian Peter Kay, is both a successful stand-up comic, and a writer and performer of astringent comic drama. In my pugnacious yet long considered opinion, I believe both of them are far greater comic dramatists and comic actors, than they are stand up comics. Kay who knows no limits to blackness in that wonderfully mordant series Phoenix Nights, set in a back of beyond  Lancashire drinking club, is by contrast prone to sentimentality and Mum and Dad veneration, in his sell-out stand up. His stand up assuredly wouldn’t offend anyone, whereas Phoenix Nights has offended both real people (for example a real fire safety officer with a similar name to a safety officer portrayed in one of the shows as having a sexual passion for dogs) and also anyone who thinks a huge inflatable Bouncy Castle that looks like a massive tumescent penis, as hired for a Phoenix Family Fun Day, is something rather well beyond the 9 o’clock watershed borderline.

I believe most contemporary UK stand up is severely constrained, because it is either derivative observational humour, or more often boom-boom one-liners, and with an occasional fusion of the two, as per taking a poke at some lame politician or easily slaggable TV celebrity, or even a rival stand up comic. Of course years back, satirising real personalities on TV was absolutely proscribed, which meant the one liner and the observational gag, inevitably ruled the stand up roost. Really gifted observational comics stood out a mile, and the Glaswegian Chic Murray(1919-1985) was one who was able to elaborate a surreal and wholly bizarre fantasy, as in the famous ‘Woman with the Long Nose’, meaning she who was attending the same Kirk wedding as Chic. She turns the wedding  hymn book by means of her outsize conk, and picks up a cake off the reception floor with her freakish hooter, a cake that sly Chic himself would love to have purloined.  It is partly a matter of perfect comic timing, and partly the way Murray itchily and subtly moves his neck, and lifts his fat chin, before delivering the next outlandish wildness. Needless to say the hard-won virtuoso mechanics of timing and minutiae of facial gesture and the like, have all but disappeared off the contemporary comic’s agenda. The four letter word substitute as narrative comma, is only one raw indicator of an essentially cloud cuckoo land idleness in the blissfully wishful-thinking approach to one’s chosen comic art.

The sociology of stand up comedy changed dramatically I would say about 30 years ago, when people like Ben Elton of Saturday Night Live, ushered in a whole school, nay a nationwide university, of 30 plus young folk, who decided if they lapped up a few simple how to do it primers, they could be just as funny as the next. It was the equivalent of a thousand hopeful tyros who knew nothing about musical notation, deciding they were going to be if not at the top like Mozart, at least jobbing composers, and bugger the astronomical odds. In the old days you could count the number of TV stand ups on one hand, whereas now they are as legion as the stars above, and with Edinburgh Comedyfest prepared to give the whole frenetic population an annual much feted outing. The sheer increase in quantity, is obviously consonant with the fact that the vast majority of them are conspicuously unfunny. Their observational humour, such as it is, is jejune, time limited and banal, and amounts to something that any moderately bright 12 year-old could expound, if they had 5-10 minutes to think about it. Worse still, there is an excess of what Vladimir Nabokov would have denounced as ‘topical trash’, meaning laboured gags about contemporary TV and political personalities, who thank God, come and go like the wind, and will mean nothing to anyone in 20 years time. For confirmation of this, simply go to the Complete DVD of Monty Python, and the only unfunny things there, are the references to minor 1970s cabinet ministers, who no one but the likes of me can possibly remember. I can vividly remember Michael Stewart, the scared little Labour Foreign Secretary of 45 years ago, if only because in the Oxford Union in 1970, I watched Christopher Hitchens vituperating against him for being pro-Vietnam, and meanwhile a few fearless balcony activists were actually dangling an executioner’s noose over the poor little guy’s head.

By contrast, in true and pungent comic drama (as opposed to lame and ersatz comic drama, and its bedfellow the limp one liner) we get the comedy of pain, distress, humiliation, unendurable frustration, even grief, writ large. All of these faithfully rendered painful emotions, are capable of inducing an obverse emotional response, of what we might as shorthand call ‘a belly laugh’. This is precisely because the laugh comes from the belly or the guts, whereas in limp comic series and tawdry boom-boom one liners, the nervous chuckle as opposed to the visceral laugh, comes from about one cubic inch above the tonsils. The comedy of the latter, such as it, is cerebral, meaning it is thought-driven, not guts-mediated, even if the actual content is truly brainless and jejune. The profound and ever watchable comedy of Black Books, Phoenix Nights and Chewin’ The Fat, and ground-breaking predecessors like Steptoe and Son,  comes from the fact they courageously treat of human passions and emotions that are usually either very uncomfortable, or downright painful, sometimes truly tragic. Only think of Brian the Phoenix Club owner’s wheelchair disability and the fact that he becomes doubly incontinent when he accidentally locks himself in his house overnight. Or of Chewin’ The Fat’s Karen Dunbar as the  painfully lonely village shopkeeper, desperate to have any kind of friend, meaning feverishly yet hilariously inviting absolutely any of her customers home, to have one of her sadly untouched collection of ‘individual trifles for one’.

Desperate loneliness as a profound comic motif, started off in the early 1960s with senile, sneering Albert Steptoe, London rag and bone man who was dressed always in funereal black, and so poor he had only a horse and cart to do his rounds. His 39 year-old bachelor son Harold, is desperate to break away from the humiliating business, but his Dad is terrified of being left alone, and pace Samuel Beckett’s eternally bound Hamm and Clov, does everything he can to subvert his son’s quest for independence. When it first appeared in the early 60s, Galton and Simpson’s Steptoe and Son, introduced the truly radical and very frequently uttered swear words ‘bleeding’ and ‘git’ in lieu of the unspeakable ‘bloody’ and ‘get’. You have to remember at about the same time popular situation comedy was of the most anodyne and lifeless mediocrity, almost exclusively about middle class mores, mostly expressed as sotto voce tetchiness, in affluent suburban London. Bumbling Harry Worth of the eponymous show was the dozy old hapless bachelor ruled by his aunt who thank God we never saw, and Terry and June was about a niggling couple where his beloved golf and her womanly fussiness provided laughs that were of anywhere but the belly, and neither be assured were they of the suburban London genitals. The existence of a thing called sex as acknowledged in TV comedy, only became a reality once Steptoe and Son began to depict what it was really like to  be a desperately sex-starved rag and bone man touching 40, and whose Dad messily ate his supper stark naked in the tin bath, in the very sitting room where infuriated Harold was trying to do his arduous courtship.

Chewin’ the Fat, like the more recent Little Britain, and unlike Black Books, was a series of formula comic sketches that were repeated every week but with fertile minor variations. It is proof of their excellence, that these sketches could bear such frequent repetition. They could only be so, because they were of both great originality and great imaginative intensity, and with a radical shock value that often comes of breaking all genteel, or even notionally quite justifiable taboos. Monty Python which first appeared on TV in 1969, led the iconoclastic way here, since when the genie has never been put back in the bottle, though not always with the same sense of integrity or creative honesty. The point to stress though, is that the taboos in both Python and Chewin’ the Fat and for that matter Little Britain are taboos contingent on character-rooted comedy. They are not just gratuitous and directionless four letter words, or a kind of rough and foul-mouthed evocation of sexual libertinism or gratuitous obscenity.

There were about 40 repeated sketches over the three years the Scottish show was broadcast, and perhaps the easiest way of discussing a selective handful, is by looking at them thematically rather than individually.

Depiction of bracingly coarse sexual behaviour, of highly captivating frankness

Karen Dunbar regularly plays Betty the Auld Slapper, interviewed by Scottish documentary TV for her pungent memories of WW2 in Glasgow. Limping on somehow into her crumpled 80s, instead of Dad’s Army salt of the earth reminiscence, she concentrates exclusively on her memories of snorting, panting back alley sex, as encouraged by the wonderful laxity of wartime morals. Facing the camera, she sits with her legs wide open, all her octogenarian underwear shamelessly on display, as she describes hitching her skirt up in the often freezing cold, and those memorably well-hung soldiers on leave and laughing ARP boys, who she hungrily and fearlessly took to herself. At one point the greatly exasperated interviewer, played by Greg Hemphill, asks her does she really have no memories of wartime other than crude sexual experiences, whereupon she indignantly replies, ‘Yes of course I…ah well actually, no I don’t.”

Annie, a lifelong feminist, watched all this in stitches, and afterwards we debated the delicate boundaries of taste at stake. Aside from anything else, it is still barely acknowledged that many very elderly people have considerable sex drives, and in addition enjoy reminiscing about their gripping love lives of up to 70 years earlier. Compay Segundo  of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club with his sexy flat cap, was vigorously womanising at 91, and there is plenty of testimony that both nonagenarian and centenarian women and men, are still going at it like rabbits over in the Isle of Ikaria in the North Aegean. Google Ikaria and Sex and The Elderly and you will have an agreeable and even hope-filled education.

Of a similar but even more shocking ilk, is where Karen Dunbar runs a hotdog van, and is approached by two cheeky small boys, both of whom giggle and gleefully shout at her, Show us your fanny/pussy! That kind of outrageous scenario has of course happened in real life Glasgow  to numerous women numerous times, and with the women angrily threatening the atrocious kids, and the urchins duly scuttering off. But instead of bawling at them, Dunbar paradoxically does as bid, and lifts her skirt to reveal her naked genitals, precisely as demanded. Cue the kids’ foul little mouths dropping open in sheer panic, rather than the anticipated ecstasy. Here again it is the Zen-like subversion that is the painfully comic key, and the same surely applies in real life when a woman is required to respond to lewd cat calls from obscene adult males. Give them what they ask for, and offer to have public sex with them on the spot, and of course they will shit a macho brick and run for the distant hills.

Volcanic Intensity As You Have Never Yet Seen It

Ford Kiernan, who was born with a sombre old man’s face and looks fat even though he is not obese at all, is engaged on some finicky manual work of minute precision. In one episode, his alter ego, aka Ballistic Bob, is a chef who is placing glace cherries on dozens of small cakes, whose decorative icings all rise to a peak. From the very start the first cherry rolls back down, so that BB grins and tries again. And again. And again. His face at length cracks, and then the demented rage begins to fume, and after the tenth vain attempt, Ballistic Bob simply goes berserk, starts to scream like a lunatic, and pulverises every single cake to oblivion.

There is also a virtuoso duo of demented intensity in the form of Bob and Alan, two truly manic assistants in a Glasgow electronics store. Sales pitch, including succulently impossible guarantee promises, is an understatement, as they jointly drown the wide-faced customer with electronic arcana,  largely  of their own fantastic invention. To make things all the more surreal and truly insane, Kiernan and Hemphill both have hacksaw haircuts and psychopathic protruding dentures that make the pair of them look like razor sharks. Finally, to add insult to injury, they wheedle the customer’s name out of them, and pun ever more insultingly with febrile speed and synchronised ingenuity on the increasingly more ludicrous name.

Frankly, I have never seen anything like it in terms of ingenious word play, lunatic and nightmarish personas, blisteringly fast improvisation, and all round fearless effervescence. It makes the over-revered Spike Milligan  look arthritic and direly unimaginative, when it comes to flawless speed of delivery, and Marty Feldman almost wholesome, and like a retired and beaming Rotarian treasurer, when it comes to gratuitous and manic and very sinister bullying, and in this case all done as a brilliantly coordinated two-hander.

What I am saying is that the insane yet immensely disciplined comic energy, and the imaginative precision here in Chewin’ The Fat, are, and please forgive the facile cliché, literally beyond praise. Kiernan and Hemphill and Dunbar and their two regular comedian supporters Paul Riley and Mark Cox, truly are in their risk-taking and boundary-breaking vigour and insouciance, beyond ordinary merit and beyond ordinary indicators of recognition. They are quite simply too good at what they are doing, and there behold is a truly fascinating paradox to play with. Just as Monty Python was way too brilliant for the astonished world of  1969, and the Pythons were far too massively munificent at what they gave as comics, so these Glasgow geniuses, from 1999-2002, gave at least twenty times as generously as you would expect.

To that extent they are doubtless paying the price. The Pythons have stayed in permanent currency, I think, in part because they speak in received English, albeit their ventriloquial powers in working class Lancs and Yorks truisms, and in parodied Aussie and Yankee argot, are generally flawless. The Chewin’ The Fat comics are hampered by the fact Glaswegian accents can surely thwart international TV sales, as they doubtless did with the matchless Rab C Nesbitt, and with that other excellent Scottish series of surreal sketches, Absolutely (1989-1993). Meanwhile the legions of derivative and truly adolescent UK stand ups, effortlessly hog the airwaves, and every night of the week on BBC2 and Channel 4 you can enjoy these Masonic gnomes and pixies on their jaunty little elbow-nudging quiz shows. They all laugh volcanically at each other’s gags, and they all laugh most democratically at their own gags too. They know less about visceral and truly passionate and truly enduring comedy, than they do about the phonetics and grammar of Old Vandalic or Old Gothic or Old Hittite. With no struggle whatever they rise to the very top of C4 and BBC2 , while Dunbar, Hemphill and Kiernan are, and I stop now to worry and wonder, are doing God knows what nowadays.

Not to worry though. What endures, endures. It is all, as I said, about the leisurely and therefore frustrating dynamics of Time and Chance. We meet these things when we are ready for them, and more crucially they meet us when it is deemed that they are just as ready for us.

NB. All 4 of the Chewin’ The Fat series, plus 6 Hogmanay Specials, can easily be obtained second-hand on Amazon etc. both as DVD and in some cases video cassette.

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

It is amazing how little some people travel. By that, I am not of course referring to folk who haven’t yet hitchhiked with a battered rucksack and £200 in their pocket, from say Bermondsey or Berwick-on-Tweed, to Ladakh or the Sinkiang Desert… but to those striking individuals who have rarely if ever left their one horse town. There are more of these folk than you think, and they are not all in their late 90s. Chrisoula aged 47 who owns the Glaros and is originally from the Mani, has been living in Kythnos 20 years, but has barely left the port in all that time. The nearest village Dryopida some 5 kilometres away, is where the only island household goods and hardware shop can be found, and where the excellent Health Centre is located, but it is 14 years since Chrisoula was in Dryopida. She has been to Loutra the principal resort in the north, only once, 7 years ago. Mention a few out of the way but idyllic Kythnos bays, especially the hallucinatory sandy ones down south like Simousi and Skhilo, and not only has she never been, she has never even heard of  them. Objectively this is very strange, given that Kythnos is very small, has a population of less than 2000, and is so narrow that both sides of the rugged and lonely coast can be euphorically viewed in many places. You would think Chrisoula might have idly gazed at a map of the island in the last 20 years, as the complimentary tourist versions are plastered everywhere you go, and surely a name like say Gaidharomandra (Donkey Fold) would stick in anybody’s mind. A name like that definitely hasn’t stuck in Chrisoula’s mind, though.

Looking for a possible explanation, in enlightening structural terms, we can point out she has no known partner, no children, no car, no motorbike to allow of any spontaneous bashing off for a spin, does not know how to use a computer, works all the hours that God sends, and in her free time virtually bolts herself inside her house, where she does the same thing every day of her life: viz. sits on her single bed, and watches 1950s black and white Greek comedies, while hungrily eating lots of chocolates. You never ever see Chrisoula walking through the port, unless it is to buy something from the supermarket that the Glaros has run out of. Though very attractive and vivacious, she is not interested in men or marriage or any other variants, and far prefers the subtly  different challenges of vintage comedy DVDs, and, if she really treats herself, Drambuie chocolate liqueurs. She once told me her idea of unfettered bliss, would be to spend 2 weeks all alone in a nice hotel in somewhere comfy, crass and touristy, like Kos or Mykonos, meals and everything else brought in as room service, never leaving her sea view balcony, but just sitting and sunning herself all day, and doing absolutely nothing.

My father was not a great traveller, and he spent his first 15 years from 1915-1930, in the unusual and impoverished Irish Cumbrian community of Cleator Moor, some 4 miles from the port of Whitehaven.  The little town was built on the profitable extraction of iron ore, which reached its height in the late 19th century and had been waning ever since, and the community likewise sinking into desuetude by the late 1920s. Whole villages from Mayo and Sligo had come here to work the mines in the 1860s, and when my Dad was around 10 in 1925, he was helping deliver his farmer Dad’s potatoes to some very old ladies from the remotest Mayo hamlets. These ladies were in their 90s in 1925, meaning born around the unearthly  year of 1835. Not one of them had ever made the perilous 4 mile bus journey down to Cumbrian metropolis Whitehaven, and they crossed themselves in anguish as they contemplated it, in front of the 10 year-old son of the Protestant farmer. Several of them definitely did believe in the world of fairies, and assured the young boy that the little people were as real as he was, and that they personally had conversed with these unworldly creatures on numerous occasions, even in somewhere as far from Ireland as Cumbrian Cleator Moor.

Credulous old peasant women and their talk with the little people of Mayo and of Irish Cumbria? It gets more entertaining if less credible, when the people in question are bright and cultured, and yet sublimely ignorant of certain basic things. I have already mentioned some weeks back, the friend of mine aged 34, a distinguished painter graduate of one the finest of UK art colleges. He was the one who, when my girlfriend of 1977 accidentally broke wind in his presence, expressed absolute amazement rather than merriment or distaste at what he had heard. Despite being from a large family and having 6 sisters, he claimed he had never once heard a woman fart, and moreover, and by reasonable inference, believed that none of the sex ever did, and that applied worldwide and throughout all of human history. Ditto as I wrote around the same time, the far too sheltered woman, a friend of my late mother-in-law, who had taken a package holiday to Tunisia, but had no idea that in so doing she had been to Africa, and was deeply resentful when someone told her that she had. She sincerely believed Tunisia was somewhere between Spain and Portugal, though admittedly she was wholly unaware that the latter pair shared frontier borders with each other.

Just as baffling, I was once teaching a fiction course in Cambridge, attended by a lively woman who wrote freelance science and health articles for several Sunday broadsheet magazines. I was 45 at the time, and she was somewhere around 40. One night in the college bar the conversation, heaven knows why, got round to exotic fruits and vegetables, and this highly intelligent science correspondent remarkably confessed she had never even heard of, much less seen, anything called a pomegranate. We actually had to describe to her what it looked like, as this being 1996, there was no handy laptop there to knock up a picture in 2 seconds flat. She had been brought up in North London and its umpteen upmarket grocers, and therefore had no excuse, whereas I who was raised in remotest pit village West Cumbria, had been battering away with a safety pin at pomegranates and their elusive seeds, all too easily purchased in season in the antique village Coop, way back in 1957.

All this is inconsequential joke stuff of course. In the last event it hardly matters if you have never heard of pommies, not unless you fall in love with an Iranian, and then realise that their cuisine is inextricably infused with pomegranates. They are there not just as a breathtaking seraphic jewel-like garnishes, when the hypnotising seeds are delicately sprinkled…but pomegranate sauce is a standby for succulently flavouring fried pumpkins, courgettes and aubergines and the like. Likewise if you are a man who thinks that no woman stoops so low as to fart, that might also be a species of comfort to you, if not to the woman herself. Farts might well be comical and uproarious things, but amazingly they serve a definite benign not to say essential physiological function, and she who never farts will definitely not be a well woman.

No, the serious ignorance is that which is arguably deliberate and lucidly willed, and yet denied. To that extent you might say it is perfectly functional and structural too, as it serves a definite collective and cathartic and profoundly social purpose. On a domestic but cruel and catastrophic level, you might get a married woman whose 3 daughters have been sexually abused by their father over  a period of 15 years, and she claims she knew nothing at all about it, for the whole decade and a half, even if all 3 daughters were permanently sickening for something, and scared witless of being left alone with their Dad.  The functional explanation is that she was terrified of the shame of being the culpable custodian of a House of Incest, more than she was terrified of the damage done to her 3 daughters. Ultimately, perhaps one of the permanently traumatised daughters will choose to believe her, and the other two will angrily repudiate her for life.

On a similar theme, all of those who lived near Oswiecem = Auschwitz, claimed they had no idea what was going on, this despite the unending stench of the countless burning corpses. The German train drivers who took the trains there, claimed they had no idea what they were driving in the cattle trucks. Nearly all Germans at the end of WW2 claimed they had no idea what was happening to the Jews and the Gypsies and the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Communists and the Homosexuals, and presumably if they had, they would have kicked up a very courageous, indeed suicidal fuss. There is not a single regime in the world, however crazed and perverse, that will admit it tortures, as enjoined from the top down, and regularly the goon on the shop-floor who does the torture, gets put away, while the tenured gangsters in the government get away scot-free. In this connection, in 2001, the late Christopher Hitchens, famously wanted to have Henry Kissinger arraigned as a war criminal, for what he did by way of defoliation and genocidal carpet bombing in Vietnam, and other parts of Indo-China, as well as orchestrated coup changes and assassinations variously in East Timor, Chile and Bangladesh. Specifically Hitchens accused Kissinger of flagrantly breaking international law ‘by engaging in conspiracy to murder, kidnap and torture’. He also brusquely but accurately described him as ‘a stupendous liar with a remarkable memory’.

It was never going to happen, alas. The solipsism remains, and kept him more tightly protected than a bullet-proof vest. He was a nice, avuncular, curly-haired American powerhouse politician in a smart suit, and he was at the heart of the government, so he could not possibly be a genocidal criminal. Meanwhile his identikit avatars, most of them males, curly-haired and avuncular and beautifully turned out too,  are still floating around doing his inimitable and spectacular dirty work, and it is only because he is now aged 91 he has given up the rather demanding task himself.

THE MAN WHO CALLED ME ‘LOVE’

THE MAN WHO CALLED ME ‘LOVE’

One of the best  jobs I have ever had, was in the first year of my marriage, when for a few months in 1979, I was a postman in a small North Yorkshire town. The customers, or perhaps I mean the all too worthy and delightful service consumers, divided into those who unquestionably loved you, and those who emphatically did not. The former included the Headmaster of the Comprehensive, a tolerant, sensitive and handsome man of about 50, who took no offence at the fact I wore a woolly hat, his substantial intelligence confirming that it made no difference to my qualities as an effectual post-person. I was a casual employee, which meant I didn’t have to wear a uniform, just an identificatory  band around my arm. However an overweight garage mechanic with a sullen Straw Dogs horror movie mien, gave me a look of frank loathing every time I brought him some post. I couldn’t work out whether it was the woolly hat, or the dusty jeans or the wispy beard, or the very long hair, or my notable thinness. He himself was very fat, and looked like a sulking championship pig in an agricultural show, who thinks it should have got first prize but comes Special (= We Feel Especially Sorry For You) Consolatory Boar Award.

There is a lot of nonsense talked about supposedly warm-hearted, wholly homogeneous northerners, both by themselves and by the rest of the UK. Roughly speaking,  and likely because of a history of extreme geographical obscurity, all parts of my native Cumbria are openly and instinctively friendly, the industrial bits possibly more tangibly so. Bizarrely though, and perhaps because the county is so big, in Yorkshire, it is only the industrial  cities where you find any real warmth i.e. Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and the like. Get in the rural parts, and especially rural North Yorkshire, and they are as clannish and at times as rude as Jack and the Beanstalk’s Giant. Things are doubly confounding, because all the men in North Yorks routinely address each other as ‘love’, in the way that all other northerners address the opposite sex exclusively.

I didn’t know about the surprising men-men ‘love’ vocative, till I turned up in the little town, and took the job on the post. After a while, you stop feeling any sense of lingering macho repugnance, not that I was spectacularly overloaded with that item,  given that at 20, I was both writing poetry and studying Sanskrit, and had hair down to my admittedly very attractive arse. In any case being addressed as ‘love’, did not always betoken an extension of the beautiful abstract noun, as opposed to the affable vocative equivalent. Most memorably I once went in our North Yorks pub, where Annie and I dallied several times a week, and where we both consumed a  fair amount of lager. I had been given a birthday cheque by someone, and at the time had no bank account sorted, so asked the burly publican behind the bar if he would cash it for me. He and everyone there in the bar knew that we were both in decent work, and there was absolutely nil risk whatever entailed with a £25 cheque. Yet he gave me a tender double whammy, when he said to me with the sweetest ever smile:

No, love.

Imagine all the endlessly ramifying and mortifying extensions of that. Supposing a North Yorkshire gay bloke called Ron, from a funereal dump like Pickering or Seamer or Filey, suspects his partner of perfidious infidelity, and asks him one night the agonising question, ‘Do you still love me, Dave?’ Whereupon Dave, the Pickering or Seamer or Filey blighter, goes and heartlessly imitates that paradoxical Zen master of a publican of 36 years ago, and says to poor old thread-clutching Ron:

No, love.

On the post they gave me several nicknames. One was obvious, ‘Chic’,  and no not the French adjective pronounced ‘sheek’, even though my blue woolly hat was palpably fetching enough. It was homage to the very funny Scots comic, Chic Murray, who after his TV success went on I believe to host a popular nightclub in Edinburgh, but died tragically early, aged 65. I also rejoiced in the nickname of ‘Garlic Jack’, as I regularly cooked Annie and me Italian, Chinese and Indian food stuffed to the gills with the delicious bulb.  The postman sorting next to me first discerned it, and exclaimed, Phew, what a fucking stink! and that was the start of it all. Though even now, nearly 40 years later, I have no idea who the original garlic-loving Jack might have been.

Things were different on the post and altogether much more professional, nay stringently academic, some 7 years earlier. In the winter of 1972 an old friend of mine took a temporary job in Oxford that included the Christmas rush, plus a few months before and after. The first day, unlike me in N Yorks, who was simply designated to follow someone else on their round, he was given a formal induction along with other novices, in a makeshift lecture hall with slides and pointers and bullet points, and all the rest. He was required to study the taxing science of Postation,  and given this was long before computers, it comprehended the ponderous intricacies of mail flow, ergonomics, missing stamps (agh, the byzantine options there, most of them resolving to charging the luckless addressee at last twice the price on arrival). Then there was the nightmare of inadequate addresses, and of course this was in the now inconceivable era before postcodes. All this was most deeply interesting to such as me, as I have atrocious handwriting, and once in 1980 wrote to a friend in Hawaii, who took a whole year to receive my by then prehistoric  letter, and it had amazingly gone by Cambodia, Laos, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, S. Korea, N. Korea, Japan, Inner and Outer Mongolia, and even Ho Chi Minh city, on its wavering but dauntless peregrination.

The post here on Kythnos is unarguably a mystery, and an absolute agony at the moment. I arrived in  the autumn of 2013, and it was truly excellent and flawless in both directions until December 2014. Well before starting my blog, I had written two or three well-received pieces about Kythnos, which seemed inadequately served by sending them as email attachments that I assumed no one would ever read. Instead like a fearless self-publishing zealot, I printed them off, then photocopied and posted them approximately 50 at a time, from the Hora Post Office. As I have written earlier, the previous Kythnos postman, as dry as a bone and unmoved by absolutely everything, instead of being delighted by such a massive and unexpected counter revenue, looked at me as if I was insane, and indeed asked me bluntly what person in his right mind would want to buy 50 bloody stamps. The licking alone, was his unspoken implication, being a pointless labour of Hercules and of course I with my Cumbrian flat cap and probably South Korean shorts, looked nothing like doughty old Hercules, did I?

Up till last December, a letter or postcard from Kythnos to a foreign destination, would take reliably 7-10 days, regardless of whether it was to the UK, USA, Albania, Sweden, India, Bhutan, or the Bewitching Moons of Saturn. In the opposite direction, add perhaps another 2 days, no more, and probably consonant with Athens Sorting Office laughing itself delirious for a whole 2 days and nights, at the idea of anyone writing to bloody daft Kythnos, from say Wroclaw, Poland, as my daughter Ione sometimes did. But then come last December, the sour old postman retired, and his place was taken by a much younger man, who sad to say, one shrewd glance informed you would never cut the Cycladean mustard for years, possibly even decades, to come. He had an ill-fitting baseball cap, short  but springy hair, a wide and friendly face, but also an innate, perpetually puzzled helplessness, and an inflexible and pointless obstinacy, which alas will surely permanently prevent him entering the Superleague of Advanced Postation, whether present day Greek or the exemplary  English variety of 43 years ago. Breathtakingly, and right from the start, he upped his ante and his future CV, by taking no less than 3 weeks Christmas holiday in Athens, and given that Kythnos has only one postman, not a little postatory stagnation was observed to ensue. Kythnos business went stone dead for 3 bloody weeks, instead of 3 Merry Yuletide days. If there had been no such thing as email and no such thing as texts, Kythnos would have simply congealed like a blood clot, and it would have been no more, and it would not have been a pretty or a dignified 2015 Cycladean island burial.

Item. Two letters dispatched mid-December from me to the UK, both containing large cheques to be paid in by a friend, took 3 months to get there from Kythnos i.e. arriving mid March 2015. The Greek postmark, my friend informed me, read March 3rd. That can only mean the letters sat either in Kythnos Hora, or in an Athens sorting office for 77 days or 11 piquant weeks, before being reluctantly forwarded to dear old Blighty.

Item. Ditto for a pair of Christmas presents to a Cumbrian uncle aged 86 (komboli worry beads, a fine joke, as he is the least worried person in the whole universe) and a Cumbrian  aunty of 96 (Greek cat calendar and Greek dog calendar) who is presently living in a Residential Care Home. They both got their Christmas presents in mid March.

Worse still, you can’t even blame Kythnos, just because it is a laughably obscure Greek island. Last November, I needed to do some crucial shopping in Lavrio on the mainland, and decided while I was there to post a birthday present to a friend in Mississippi.  I trudged the fair distance to Lavrio Post Office, and it cost me all of 12 euros  or over £9, to send the bulky parcel. I jested with the counter lad that it would go by plane, not by fishing boat, and he chortled at the lovable absurdity of my Monty Pythonesque British fancy. I’ve never talked to him since, but I assume it actually travelled on the back of a one-eyed seagull with severe wing arthritic displacement, hence insuperable navigational problems. My US friend’s birthday was 25th November, and she got her present on the 26th of February, again, most movingly, a sterling and let’s face it, a very repetitive, hence reliable 3 months.

Postscript: Not even the 3 months rule can give anyone, and least of all me, lasting consolation. I am still awaiting a Christmas present posted from Canada approximately 4 and a half months ago. If ever I get it, it will  do for next Christmas. Or maybe the Christmas after that? Or maybe a Christmas beyond even our mathematical, not to say ecological and apocalyptical computation?

THE DISTURBING CAVE OF THE NYMPHS

THE DISTURBING CAVE OF THE NYMPHS

A large group of burly Russian yachties have just walked through the centre of the port here. Language apart, you can tell they are Russians, partly from their stature in the case of the big and bullish men, and in addition the same guys always wear fearlessly colourful t-shirts, often flaming crimson, combined with oddly skittish, even childish white shorts. My assumption is they are not really sure whether they are grown-ups or still kids, so they decide it’s safest to be both. Also they cling together defensively and vigilantly more than all other foreigners, as if still  affected by the good old Soviet days, when best to say nothing, do nothing,  and want nothing, but to be left in peace. They are conspicuously a strange mixture of thrifty and spendthrift. To economise, they often eat all their meals on the yacht, but then at say 10 o’clock at night, hurtle en masse into the port souvenir shop and come out laden with umpteen bags, and obviously have spent what would have got  them grilled lobster and the finest wines for their 3 days stay, before rattling off to Serifos or Sifnos or Syros.

But one Russian guy of about 35, made a serious mistake today. He walked boldly into the Glaros, and proceeded to the Gents, as if thinking it were a public convenience. Marianna caught him just in time, and told him assertively in English, he must buy something if he wanted to use the facilities. He pretended  to push her away (if he had actually done so, she would have blithely and expertly eviscerated him on the spot), scowled and snorted something rude in Russian, then stomped off. I’m sure if he had asked politely instead of blustering in, she’d have let him piss away till the Russian cows come home, so to speak. Marianna’s sister Chrisoula then started reminiscing about two Frenchwomen last year who came into the Glaros, guiltlessly ate the tiropittas they’d just bought from the bakery, then aristocratically yawned and used the bogs, later swanning off with about a mile of both toilet paper and kitchen paper, likely because they had used it all up on their luxury hired yacht.  The French tourists, it is widely agreed on Greek islands, are the worst and rudest malefactors in Greece, and some still exercise a robustly colonial attitude towards those lazy, olive-coloured, Mediterranean and dear me, oh so childlike and improvident and debt-ridden Greeks of 2015.

It works both ways of course. Almost exactly 20 years ago in May of 1995, Annie, Ione and I were in the beautiful Ionian Isle of Ithaki, famed for its Homeric connections, staying in its fine little port and Hora, Vathi. We had started off in neighbouring Kefalonia which was likeable but candidly speaking, nothing startling, the only startling thing being in the pretty village of Assos (also the name of Greece’s best known brand of cigarette) where a British woman in the same cafe had leant backwards in her chair and accidentally hurt a cat. The cat had responded by sinking its claws very deep into her leg, and made such an ugly mess she had to seek immediate medical assistance some 20 miles up north. The doctor charged her a bomb, she told us later, and it would all come out of her insurance, but in the meantime her credit card took the punishment, and she now spent all her time looking for vicious animals skulking beneath her chair. So much for the idyll that was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The same day a girl assistant in a fruit shop in the capital Argostoli, tried to overcharge me massively. When I told her in Greek I wasn’t pleased, instead of being contrite, she just looked defiant and even smirked at me and my far too polite indignation.

Ithaki is a lot smaller than Kefalonia, and Vathi is a lot prettier than Argostoli, which is all featureless breeze blocks constructed after the terrible earthquake of 1953. We secured excellent and bargain Vathi rooms a twenty minute walk out of town, and because the place was empty, the kind young woman gave us two rooms for the price of one. That meant that Ione aged not quite 6, had her own massive fridge, which she promptly filled with ten Chupa lollipops and nothing else. She had other more important things to think of, as apropos verbs like ‘filled’ starting with the letter ‘f’,  she had just fallen in love with our domatia owner’s son. The Ionian Adonis in question was called Spiros, and was 10 years old, and all specs and sober-looking, but that didn’t stop her passionate young heart. She worshipped him from afar, and at one stage approached him with not one, but two Chupa lollipops, which thank God he didn’t refuse.

You are wondering what has happened to the East Europeans, but don’t worry I am getting there. Because it was May, it was classed as low season = winter by the restaurants and our domatia. As a result, quite a lot of tavernas were either closed, or, not bothering with any menu, serving only one or two standard dishes. An exception was the excellent one we went to almost every night, and the owner of maybe 60, took an obvious shine to us. He warned Ione off playing with the famished cats under the table, as they could give her a nasty scratch, thinking that her playful hand had food inside. He gave us free wine and free ouzos at the end of every meal, and then sat down and told us what he did in the winter. He was open here May to October, and then did nothing but please himself hedonistically  for the next 6 months. So he went fishing in his boat and hunting on his motorbike, and essentially lived off what he made in only 2 frantic weeks in August. The rest of the time including now, was pin money. Then distracted, he pointed without charity at some tourists walking past, who looked somehow different from the rest. He told us they were from the Czech Republic, and sneered that perhaps because it was only 6 years since Communism collapsed, they had no money to speak of.  Whenever they sat down in his taverna, they frugally shared not many things between a lot of them, and this of course for him was irritating. He looked at us with contrary approval, as we had ordered enough for 6 people, being unrepentant hogs. Tomato keftedes, chickpea keftedes, tzatziki, gigantes which Ione loved, Greek salad which Annie really loved, especially the succulent Ithaki tomatoes. That was just our copious starters, and then there was all the rest. Moussaka for Annie and melanouri, sea bream, for me, which Ione instantly purloined massive quantities of, not for herself as she has always loathed fish, but for her feline chums feasting luxuriously below. She actually took a handsome portion off my fork en route to my salivating gob, and threw it down for the delirious cats. If I deviously sneaked too much of my dinner for myself, she looked at me reproachfully for stinting her mewing pals below. She then turned to Annie, and asked her what time did she think handsome old Spiros went to bed, and could we maybe drop everything and rush back there immediately, our supper only half digested, to wish him a  good night? She had 8 more splendid Chupas left to give him, in her otherwise empty fridge.

That’s enough of East Europeans in Greece for now. I have something altogether more haunting to tell you. However I will delay the tension for a few minutes, by saying we visited the two peculiar little Ithaki communities called Exoghi and Anoghi. The former is just a tiny far-flung hamlet full of beautiful holiday homes, but it is at an extreme elevation, and to get between some of the houses, you take a short cut of some severely inclined wooden steps. It being good old blind roulette Greece of 20 years ago, there was no such luxury as a handrail, but instead a lethal fifty foot fall on either side. It gave me a terrifying vertigo waltzing up it, but 5 year-old Ione shot up wholly fearless while I shit several kittens, and insisted that she hold my hand. She counter-insisted she would not, and I turned to Annie for counselling, but it was all academic at this stage, as she had reached the top and safety, whereas I was still struggling and tottering like a 44 year-old geriatric, and a psychogeriatric at that.

Anoghi was a lot less challenging, and an old-fashioned village in its own right. To prove it, it had a travelling  van trying  to sell rugs to bored-looking old women, and it also had a proper little village school. It was 3pm so the kids were back home, but we peeked inside from one window, and then moving to another, stood startled for a second at the sight of a stuffed vulture. I was confident it was a vulture, as prominent in both Parsee Bombay and cowboy movies, and my Greek dictionary confirmed the meaning on the handwritten caption of  ornia. One wondered why a taxidermist’s tussle with a bloody old vulture, had won it pride of place in the window of a tiny Ionian island school. Maybe it wasn’t intended for the kids’ edification, but for the serendipity bemusement of gawking tourists like ourselves. On the other hand, some questions simply have no answers, and to realise and accept as much, can take an entire lifetime of unnecessary frustration and endless and fruitless misinterpretation.

The next morning we decided to visit Marmarospili or the Cave of the Nymphs, only three quarters of an hour’s walk from Dhexa beach near Vathi. With its proximity to the beach, and supposedly a crucial part of the Homeric epic, it was thought to be where Odysseus had hidden his gift from King Alcinous. In those palmy days of 20 years ago, and being only 5, Ione would happily agree to do anything, or go anywhere on one of our foreign holidays. By contrast, only a year later, at her stringent direction, it could only be a sandy Greek cove, or if in Portugal and inland, either a  praia fluvial river beach, or some madhouse civic swimming pool in Chaves or Braga or Ponte de Lima. But she happily led the way today, and without much fuss we found the cave, and it being May, there was no one there but ourselves.

Till then, my experience of caves had only been the lateral kind one walks into, but in this case you went down into it, via a ladder reaching a depth of about fifteen yards. The three of us moved down and down the very rickety steps, and Ione did not bat an eyelid, nor did Annie, and nor did I at the very start. It was only when at the bottom, I looked up at the sky above us, at the sheer whiteness occluded and delimited by the top of our decidedly deep cave, that I began, how can I put it, to feel just a little, and then a lot, peculiarly strange…

It all happened within a few seconds, and it was emphatically my own private experience only. Ione was moderately content wandering down below, though eventually bored by the cave’s limitations. Annie likewise had no sense of foreboding or anything else unpleasant, from first to last. In my case I had the imminent and very vivid and very worrying sensation, that I was about to turn into something altogether  different from my normal and comfortable self. Most aptly, as I looked at the cave and the sky, and vividly saw a kind of invisible but nebulous smoke palpating up there, I felt as if I were in a strange version of Pasolini’s brilliant but frequently very disturbing film Medea. That gives a lame interpretation though, as if I were leisurely telling myself, that this was all very like some movie which I had seen in the Moulin Rouge cinema in Headington in Oxford in 1970. Far from it. Rather it felt as if Pasolini’s epic Medea was not just a film, but the absolute breathing and respiring reality of a thing called Greek myth, which was not in fact a myth, but a towering and perennial reality, into which I was about to fall and perhaps terrifyingly vanish from the world of 1995, and forever. So I was not therefore in a film with a name and a date and a director, in the sense of something confined to a time and place, but rather the whole Greek classical world was self-evidently a kind of perfected Pasolinian movie, with absolute and, in this case, very frightening fidelity. I need to repeat that it was the sight of the white and snaking sky above, with an invisible smoke, and perhaps also an invisible and literal and maybe living and tangibly fearful snake, that was seriously disturbing me, and making me feel as if I were in a transitional state from which I might never return, neither as a man nor a husband nor a father.

What the bloody hell to do? I made some inaudible excuse to both my wife and daughter, and shot back up the steps of the ladder. Annie didn’t even notice my panic, and it was only on the walk back I carefully told her what had happened. She listened very intently, believed every word, and said it did not surprise her one iota. She had found Medea herself unwatchable in its intensity and violence, and the same went for Fellini’s savage work of genius Satyricon, which we had gone to see together at the Penultimate Picture Palace in Oxford on my 31st birthday on October the 18th, 1981. However she wished in a way she had had my remarkable experience, and wondered for the rest of the day, as indeed did I, why exactly she had not.

THE ROAD TO SAMARKAND

THE ROAD TO SAMARKAND

I am always pleased when my blog tells me that I have a follower in relatively remote parts of the world. I was delighted recently to see that I now have a follower in Moldova. Whoever you are, original and intriguing world citizen, a thousand welcomes, and I wish you all the very best, and would like to confront you with the surprising fact that my former county town of Carlisle, Cumbria has a strong connection with your country. I don’t know why exactly, but at the Sands Centre, they regularly host your capital’s ballet, the Chisnau Ballet, perhaps just possibly because it is a little bit cheaper than the analogous Bolshoi. Though I seriously wonder what your nation’s dance team thought of Carlisle last time they were there, and assuredly it can’t possibly be in the same league as your venerable Chisnau, and I blushingly apologise for the deficiency. I would have liked you to have assured the Moldovan dancers with the impossible, namely that it (meaning Carlisle’s undeniable narcoleptic effect on visiting foreigners) won’t happen again. But sad to say, Carlisle post-1990, might well have jazzed itself up, with smart wine bars and expensive patisseries and all the rest, but it is still bloody old Carlisle, and always will be, university city notwithstanding (apparently near the bottom in the league tables, the last time I didn’t get round to taking a fascinated look). Nothing can be done about it, any more than those luculent gems of the UK NE, meaning South Shields or Middlesbrough or Sunderland, can be transmogrified by having a bar filled with Aubrey Beardsley prints, and 50 types of Chardonnay on offer. Nor even baskets full of ciabatta, nor even black olive bread will do the trick, in lieu of  the local and supposedly matchless ham stotties and filled baps, which I always imagine taste exactly like filled nappies/diapers might taste. In all cases, it is a fact that there is something heavy and vaguely threatening in the air that defeats these places, and frankly if it is vivid in the air, there is damn all to be done by way of effective remedy.

Another connection. Only about 6 months ago my immediate neighbours here in the Kythnos port were Moldovans. He was a big sturdy lad of about 28, with a friendly decidedly West Cumbrian face(ditto at least 95% of Albanian and Kosovan males, and don’t ask me why this is) and his wife was maybe 5 years younger. She was small and thin and doll-like and very shy, and a fitting complement to her husband being a stout and gently beefy bloke. They had the most beautiful little baby girl you have ever seen, one who stopped you in your tracks, she looked so delicately angelic, so that you thought she must have come from another world, and assuredly one where there was neither Coca Cola, nor Lord of the Flies just down from the Bullingdon Club, aka George Osborne, nor Invaluable Customer Feedback, nor anything called We Are Here To Please, And We Are Called Logistics. The young family survived by his doing casual work in the supermarkets, but it must have been tough going  because one day they just vanished, unable to afford their rent. I don’t think they relocated to Athens, but simply returned to impoverished Moldova. One night, just before they disappeared, I heard the young wife sobbing in the small hours, the mournful lyrical desperation of someone who at perhaps 23 has way too much, meaning literally far too little, on her plate. Her crying was haunting, the kind of sorrowful noise that women without resources, power or a sense of personal independence, have been making since time began. They wept like this young Moldovan woman wept in e.g. Shakespeare’s plays, in the Old Testament, and in the sometimes tragic novels of Yashar Kemal. Her husband was completely silent during her harrowing Biblical sobbing, and the baby likewise was not awoken by her mother’s eternal lament.

Apropos obscure destinations, a few years ago my well-travelled daughter Ione talked about going round the Central Asian Republics, or ‘The Stans’ as they are sometimes genially known. I took a close look through her travel guide, and the biggest obstacle that I could see was the demanding and complex visa requirements. The most authoritarian and worrying country of the lot, Uzbekistan, had of course the most taxing requirements. Ione said she wanted to go from one republic  to the other, as would anyone else, but then the visa  demands for transiting between the various republics were so byzantine they had my head spinning. It was worse than advanced chess, and I read the stuff three or four times and was no wiser. One thing is for sure, namely that some of these places do not like casual travellers going exactly where they want, and doing what they want, and worse still reporting on what they see to the outside world.

Uzbekistan is renowned for its hopeless lack of human rights and its dreadful torture record,  even though President Karimov denies any infractions whatever, other than those drummed up by western mischief-makers. His country is landlocked and bordered by Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. On the lines of cherchez la femme to explain a great many puzzling and sometimes catastrophic emotional  dramas, qua as in Dostoievsky’s  The Brothers Karamazov, when it comes to flagrant torture and lack of human rights, simply search for the charismatic natural resource. Did you know that Uzbekistan has the fourth largest gold reserves in the world, and is also an exporter of a great deal of natural gas? Its cotton industry is legendary too, and under the Soviets they polluted the place to hell, in a bid to ever increase the mammoth production. Geniuses that they were, from the 1960s onwards, they managed to shrink the Aral Sea to now less than half of what it was.

In 2005 when a UK doctor friend of mine was doing some voluntary work in Uzbekistan,  there was massive unrest and rioting , and over 700 folk were killed in the Andijan area. There are substantial minorities of all of these ethnic groups, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, Kazakhs etc, in all of the Stans, and in the case of Kyrgyzstan, where there also many Uzbeks, things can get incendiary. Kyrgyzstan’s second city is the interestingly named Osh, and in 1990 terrible riots broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and 300 were left dead. 20 years later in 2010, again in Osh, in riots attempting to eject yet another tyrant, President Bakiyev, 400 were killed in June alone. However things are far from good for many ordinary and innocent Kyrgyz folk inside their own country, and there are several  refugee camps for them just over the border in Uzbekistan.

That said, there must still be something magnetic about even the most appalling homeland, as I learnt when I took a taxi driven by an Uzbek, one August when I was teaching fiction in Cambridge. About 50, workaholic and infectiously cheerful, he was toiling all the hours God sent, in order to buy a nice house in Tashkent, the Uzbekistan capital. I think he quoted about £40,000 as the Uzbek equivalent of what would get you a fine mansion in the capital. And of course before the Soviet take-over of all the Stans, they were probably best known in the west as the focus of fabled romantic drama, fairytale dreams, palaces, intrigue, the glorious Silk Road, and of snorting bejewelled camels laden with even more precious and sparkling jewels. I even called my first novel after one of their cities, Samarkand. Then there are the equally sonorous Tashkent, Bukhara, Bishkek and Dushanbe.

Osh, as well as being a harrowing site of massacre and disarray, will only ever make me think of Ione’s all in one suit, she wore when she was 18 months old. It was called Osh Kosh B’gosh, and I believe it was a leading brand. To be honest I am not too desperate just yet to visit any of the Stans, but I really would like to visit Armenia and Georgia, which of course are both in the former Soviet influence area. You should hear the choral singing, many centuries old,  performed in the two churches there. I  heard the Georgian variety on a CD in beautiful and equally remote Alston, East Cumbria, 5 years ago, in 2010, and it will surely stay with me for the rest of my days.