ROCKET POWER

ROCKET POWER

A couple of months ago I described one or two subtle gourmet meals that any novice of a non-cook could make in  20 minutes or less. This week as eternal novice myself, I have made the same dish twice, one which I truly consider to be one of the most delicious meals in the world. It takes 15 minutes if you can coordinate the 2 processes, which is not at all difficult. It is Pasta with Rocket, and once you have eaten it, will be so elevated you won’t know what to do with yourself. Possible suggestions, go and embrace someone you love, and whatever you do, don’t stop half way, go the whole superheated and supremely enchanting hog. Or put on your favourite music, open a bottle of wine, and if you are on your own, don’t even put it in a glass, just beb from the bottle, and tell yourself you are you own boss, and can do what you like as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. Then put a helpful note on the bottle saying For Hygiene Reasons Only To Be Drunk By Me And No One Else. Please Refer Extremely Numerous Other Untouched Bottles Adjacent And Do Help Yourself. I’ve No Idea Why But There Are About 32 Functioning Bottle Openers in Drawer 5 Yards To Your Right.

Pasta with Rocket

-Fry half a chopped onion in olive oil with one big clove garlic. While it’s softening add either chilli powder, cayenne pepper, or small red chilli

– Meanwhile boil pasta, ideally conchiglie or penne. When nearly cooked, tip in plenty of rocket and continue till pasta and rocket cooked

-Drain, add salt and plenty of olive oil to pasta and rocket. Then mix in the fried onion, garlic, chilli

-Serve with nice sharp grated cheese and realise that untrammelled and surprisingly quite legal gustatory ecstasy is but a mere 15 minutes away

I should also add as relevant, that there are two restaurants on Kythnos that do very good rocket salads. They are both superb, but one is truly beyond belief. I thought they had mixed sweetened plums in with the rocket, but no it was grilled and caramelised vine tomatoes of incomparably addictive flavour. Also as well as picturesque pomegranate seeds, and chopped orange chunks, they added fresh grilled corn, not the disgraceful tinned or packet kind that tastes like wood shavings. The salad is enormous and costs about 7 euros, but is worth every penny and would serve four people, no problem. They also do marinated anchovy as a very tasty starter  and mussel saganaki of a very high order. I am salivating writing this, and it is 10am, and I have just had a very substantial breakfast, so my conclusion is that at 64 I have a more than healthy appetite, and am not sickening for anything.

Talking of exotic green salads, I once tried a South American  recipe for a fresh spinach salad which also had chopped apple and a sharp lemon dressing. It was a nice idea, but whatever you do to fresh as opposed to cooked spinach, it always has too astringent a taste. I love cooked spinach, though not with comme si comme ca egg and cheese confections, as in wholesome, ugh, spinach quiches, intended for bilious and petulant invalids, who of course deserve to be thoroughly punished for their refractory ways. No I like spinach best in fiery Indian dishes, where it takes in all the pungence of the masala spices. Sag aloo with chopped potatoes, to be sure, but even better is something called a bhujia which is mixed leafy greens, including sag and even humble vegetable tops, if you are a sadly penniless Indian, which of course most still are, despite the mendacious hype. You boil the greens and some chopped potatoes, then drain and mix with coriander powder, cumin, turmeric, ginger and maybe a bit of aniseed or ajwain (lovage). Then by way of suicidal bravery you add something a bit like the rocket garnish above i.e. fried onion, at least 6 cloves of garlic and a hell of a lot of blazing chilli to make you roar and dance and exult, and possibly take a minor cachexic fit. Now you know what it is like to be a penniless Indian, and it is all down to distracting yourself from your woes with so much dirt cheap chilli you can’t think about anything but the ecstatic if agonising conflagration inside your mouth.

An Indian friend of mine, a cultured, hardworking and prosperous man, living in a posh part of Bombay, was once obliged to work down in Andhra Pradesh in the south. There they specialise not so much in individual dishes themselves, though of course they have plenty of those quotidian items, but in lots of different types of piquant powdery masala, or piquant dry relishes, all of it unbelievably incendiary. After a month of stuffing himself with this admittedly delicious but molten Andhra Pradesh grub, forgive the clinical detail, but his lavatory trips had been so frequent he ended up with hellish haemorrhoids. I have known of people suffering for their art, and of course of suffering in non-artistic contexts through obesity and allied problems. But I have never known of anyone getting piles through whatever it was they ate. I always thought it was something to do with sitting on cold steps, and of course anyone who does that, deserves all they get.

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THE STRONG MAN HAS HIS SAY

THE STRONG MAN HAS HIS SAY

2004 was the year of the Athens Olympics, and the Greeks mortgaged themselves to the hilt to do themselves and the whole world justice. They built the new Venizelos airport, which is a very long way out of town, and an impressively expensive taxi ride, some of the gleeful rip-off merchants stinging you for a minimum 60 euros, if they get the chance. For your benefit, they do complex yet wholly meaningless calculations, with a biro on a bit of paper, whilst gabbling like maniacs on their mobiles, and driving with one little finger or, fuck, incredibly with none at all, at fuck me, 150km an hour! so that frankly you are grey-faced and shitting yourself, and would give them a 1000 euros, plus all your pension plans and stocks and shares, if they would only concentrate on the road ahead. The old airport was a damn sight nearer at Glyfada, and was in two discrete bits, A and B, depending where your destination was. If you ended up at the wrong bit, a taxi would shuttle you the walking distance, and if it was 3am in the morning, they would charge you twice the price for the bracing little run out.  The Glyfada airport was famous for its stray dogs, some of them the size of donkeys, but all as gentle and amiable as they come. You might choose in the small hours to doss down on the grass outside, if it was August and roasting hot, and as sure as shot the dogs would come to keep you loyal company. They would lie down cuddling next to you as if you had known them since they were Athenian pups. If you gave them a tiropitta or a sandwich, they would chew it with exquisite politeness, far better mannered than our always jostling, salivating dogs, Bonny and Monty, back in North Cumbria. I was told the airport strays were all rounded up and put to sleep, in cosmetic preparation for the Olympics, and if that is true, that is yet another reason for me disliking organised sport even more than I do. I don’t know anyone who loathes organised sport as much as I do, but if there is anyone, I would be interested to become a close friend of theirs for life.

We must have been sleepwalking that August, as we were initially baffled our rooms were so cheap in Naxos Town. It was of course because the Athenians were staying put to attend the stupid bloody Olympics, and to scratch their chins and wonder where all the stray dogs had got to. We got two very nice rooms a 20 minute walk from Agios Georgios beach, at only 25 and 20 euros, when normally high season would have been over twice that. What’s more, we were annoyed that we had been charged full whack at dreary Apollonia in the far north, and before that 50 each in a nice little domatia in Skhinousa of the Minor Cyclades. Even worse, arriving at 2am at Skhinousa’s one and only hotel, a bilious morgue of a place with funereal wardrobes, that made you want to hang yourselves inside them as the unfortunate children did in Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, the buggers demanded 70, knowing full well we would piss off next day, rather than suffer those wardrobes and nearly as bad the shit-coloured chests of drawers a minute longer.

In our swish new rooms in Naxos Hora, we were sited opposite a dentist’s, a very attractive young  woman who intriguingly often held surgeries as late as 10 o’clock at night. We could see them in there with their fearless mouths wide open, while the beautiful workaholic lady poked and drilled and chatted away. She was so good-looking it occurred to me who am not too keen on oral surgery, that if I could look at her handsome face while she was doing her worst, her worst would not be too bad. Unwittingly, I have specialised in very ugly dentists all my life, and it occurs to me I should have demanded a handsome stunner every time, rather than these oh so motley guys, who looked as if they should be peeling chips in a prison kitchen rather than  being privy to my unique dentition.

The domatia owners were an unusual and original family, who I didn’t even realise were a family to start with. I thought the son was the brother, or possibly gay partner of the Dad, and I thought the blond-haired and chainsmoking wife, was the cleaner. The son was a very fat lad of 30 who always wore minute shorts, which made him look exactly like a Greek Tweedledum or Tweedledee, and also perhaps a kind of picturesque and old-fashioned Dick Emery queen. When I delicately asked him about his brother, he chuckled and explained it was his Dad. He himself was an Athens architect, and his father had a grocery store he delegated to a cousin in August and September, when they came down here to run the Naxos domatia. Far from being gay, his Dad was straight out of the Folies Bergere management, the unlicensed Greek franchise, that is. At every opportunity, this thin and animated man of 60 would deal his always fag-puffing wife, who I had thought a hired skivvy, a massive whack across her behind, which remarkably she just grinned at, as proof of marital  attachment, rather than sending him flying with a counter-clatter to his chauvinist grocer’s lughole. After smiting her for the fourth or fifth time that morning, he would come out with his eloquent paean of adoration to the opposite sex, and declare as self-styled Dionysus, that Womankind was everything, and all else was equal last. I agreed with him on many scores, though rounding up the checklist of supreme glories to Women, Kids, Animals, Countryside, Jazz, World Fiction, World Cinema, Opera, and Wine. But genially walloping your wife’s rear end in public, died out round about 1935, even in  pre-Mesozoic Cumbria, and no one as far as I know has sought to re-establish the quaint anthropological curiosity, and certainly not any woman of whatever antique generation.

Ione aged 15 was at a pivotal age, just as she was at a pivotal age at all stages of her life, and still is, and still will be when she is 86  in 2075, and 106 in 2095. The same holds true for me of course, and for my late wife Annie, and for you as well, dear reader, and for everyone in the world past and present and future. It is clearly a bogus category, this pivotal age tosh, so perhaps I should shrewdly rephrase, and say that at 15, Ione was capable of some most unpredictable behaviour. To explain, I am not a smoker, and have not been since about 1970, and neither was Ione in 2004. However it was my custom when I was really enjoying myself on a foreign holiday, for me to buy a single packet of cigars and smoke the ten packet over the 2 weeks by way of expressing my sense of bonhomie, elan, effervescence, and my escape from the miasma and claustrophobia of my native land. Meanwhile during the Naxos holiday, Ione at times chose to wander around the small capital alone, which felt safe enough, as she never stayed away for more than half an hour. Judge of my surprise though, when taking a short cut to a supermarket, to buy some retsina for later, I stumbled across her puffing away at a huge Dutch panatella in a singular and eccentric homage to her stogie-inhaling Dad. It is relatively rare to see a grown woman smoking a cigar, but when a 15 year-old girl is blasting away at one, the world stops and takes a protracted gander. The Naxiots stared and smiled and one or two guffawed, and I also burst out laughing, and Ione seeing me burst out laughing too, so that the stogie fell to the floor, and she leisurely stamped on it and told me it hadn’t been quite as delectable as she imagined it might be.

We initially went to Apollonia in the far north of Naxos, at my wholly brainless inspiration. I made the false analogy that with a very similar name, it would be as idyllic as our August 2000 sojourn at  Pollonia in the far north of Milos. Pollonia was small and compact and with a fine sandy beach, and even one evening a travelling strong man to divert the little village. He was built like a brick shithouse, and wore a fake leopard-skin suit, but was shy and gentle as anyone could wish. He knew English and spoke politely to Annie, Ione and me, and advised Ione aged 11, never to smoke cigarettes like all the stupid Greeks did.  At the time of course she didn’t,  and it would be four years before she would struggle with an incendiary cigar in Naxos. In this connection, it was interesting he did not warn her never to pull a car, as he did every evening, along the sand with your teeth, via a brace in your mouth, with the car exhaust blowing all those splendid carcinogens in your face, even more effectively than a fag or a stogie would. A few days later, I saw him over in neighbouring Kimolos, which can be reached by a local ferry from Pollonia, and he nodded and smiled his recognition. I wondered how many Cycladean islands he would need to visit before he got anything like a liveable income, and what his life span would be, with all these toxic car exhausts, and whether his jaw or neck would eventually irreversibly dislocate with all this car dragging.

Apollonia, which was our first taste of Naxos, was a strange introduction to the island. It is a terminally boring little resort, tidy and featureless, and without even a sandy beach. It has a vast pebbled shoreline and strong tides, so you have to be a capable swimmer to cope with the pull of the currents. The only reason we came here was that a writing student of mine Ginnie, with a fascinating life story, told me she’d been here once and almost come to grief. We were talking at cross purposes to begin with, as we mixed up North Naxos and North Milos, and she told me that at Apollonia, Naxos, she had swum very far out, and been unable to swim back, the currents were so lethal. By a miracle she allowed herself not to panic, and to float on her back and eventually be pulled back by courageous non-resistance, as if she were a bit of driftwood. Nevertheless she lay there on the beach a long time, traumatised, and scarcely able to move or do anything for the best part of an hour. That story and the lethal currents ought to have put me off the place, instead of drawing me there, but oddly it all worked in symbolic reverse. Annie meanwhile did not care for pebble beaches, and sat and read for the three days we were there. When I plonked down beside her, I noticed someone nearby was reading a Jonathan Coe novel in Greek. From the cover design it was obviously The Rotters’ Club, but for the life of me, I still can’t remember how they translated the word ‘rotter’ into Greek. All I know is, it wasn’t malaka...

Our domatia in Apollonia was absolutely unprecedented. It was a very tidy villa run by two elderly Greeks with Creeping Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or to put it another way with every sign of being bourgeois and lacklustre Hellenic pains in the arse. It is an interesting fact that you meet the whole range of personality types in Greece, including the shamelessly bad-tempered and splenetic and preposterously unreasonable, who are ranting at you one minute, then kissing you to death the next. What you never ever meet is the anally retentive B and B owner, so common in the UK, where most obviously the people in question get more visceral satisfaction out of a joyous bowel movement than they do out of the so demanding act of carnal love. But magically we had lit upon the only example of the sorry genus in the whole of the Greek land, and incredulous at what we had found we suffered them for all of three days and three nights.

Our rooms were very tidy of course, and with the Olympics there was no one else there. That ought to have had them biting our hands off, yet they charged us 50 euros for each room, and simultaneously grovelled and recoiled as they took a deposit in  lieu of our passports. It was boiling at nights, and we made minimal noise coming and going after dinner, but the next day mincing Kyria and smirking Kyrio asked us to keep down the noise please. Nothing could have been more absurd, viewed from whatever sociological angle. The Greeks will readily admit they are the noisiest buggers in the universe, and when they are having a party, they not only want the whole of the village to hear their music but the whole of the island and the whole of the island group, and the whole of Greece, and maybe enraptured Bulgaria and Albania too.

Ginnie who had almost drowned at Apollonia,  had a most unusual story. She was 35 when I first met her as her fiction teacher in the spring of 2004. She was one of six children of a Scottish Catholic missionary and had been raised in Africa with compulsory church several times every Sunday, and a passionately faith-filled Dad, who as an adult she had decided she hated.  She had worked for a British charity doing work on electricity supply within West Bank Palestine, and at one stage had begun an affair and fallen in love with a local man, who also worked for the charity. She wanted the impossible, which was for him to leave his wife and for that matter his kids, and when she reminisced about it during the tutorials I gave her, she broke down and cried. So much more gripping than literature, real life, was it not, and her storytelling was certainly even more accomplished than her gifted fiction turned out to be.

Because of the West Bank connection she was invited all expenses paid to a World Conference in Teheran on the Palestinian Problem. However the Iranian convenors had got her organisation mixed up with another, more orthodox, more fundamentalist and more uncritically  pro-Iran. She had to get a visa in extra quick time, and when she turned up at the London embassy, they requested a visa photo, where her head must be chastely covered by a scarf. She dashed out to the nearest photo booth, and with no handy headscarf in sight, borrowed a towel of all things from a nearby cafe. She wrapped it round her pretty head, and looked, she decided, in her photograph, like a gormless possibly mentally handicapped fishwife from say Spain or Portugal about 1875.

The official in the Iranian embassy almost died laughing at the sight, but stamped it for her nonetheless. When she got to the Conference in Teheran it was all too deadly boring, and she realised they had taken her to be from the sister charity with the similar name, that would likely have found the whole thing desperately exhilarating. As it happened she caught the eye of two good looking young Teherani film makers, and before long she was drinking  coffee with them, and half an hour later the two men invited her to accompany them on an adventurous  trip round Iran, as they had been commissioned to make an important TV documentary. Much to the alarm of her officially designated Iranian lady minder, she accepted, and the minder had no option but to get into the car too and, unremittingly anxious for the next five days, follow the Englishwoman and the two Iranians all around the land.

What really impressed me about brave and radical and risk-taking Glaswegian Ginnie, was that when she visited us up in North Cumbria, she got down on the mat with young Ione and asked her if she could have one of her sweets, from a big bag of toffee éclairs as I recall. Aged 35, Ginnie wasn’t at all trying  to ingratiate herself with a young girl, she simply wanted one of those delicious eclairs, and she boldly asked for one, and of course Ione grinned and shoved the whole of the packet towards her.

ALL CHANGE, NO CHANGE

ALL CHANGE, NO CHANGE

Around 20 years ago, a Portuguese friend of mine was much amused when I mourned the passing of the dingy old bus station in Ponte de Lima, way up north, the handsome neighbour of Viana do Castelo. Ponte de Lima is capital of the beautiful area where they not only produce the excellent vinho verde wine, but regularly serve it on sparkling draught from a huge barrel, as if it were frothing beer. It was a wondrously seedy station, smack in the middle of the town, which is how all bus stations should be, so that you don’t have to tramp miles with your luggage, or take a costly taxi just to catch your bloody old bus to somewhere beautiful and new and virgin and strange. This station had a perfectly grubby little cafe to match, cigarette stumps everywhere, and everyone looking bleary-eyed but more or less content with life. Given that I don’t smoke and haven’t for a very long time, you would wonder what precisely it was touched me about such a milieu. I think it was because at breakfast time while waiting with Annie and Ione for our early coach to Chaves, I felt I was among very ordinary Portuguese, sipping strong bica coffee and having torrada com manteiga, toast and butter as only the Portuguese can do it. They put two layers of bread on top of each other, with butter in the middle, then lightly grill it and cut it up into fingers. If you have a little can of piquant fruit juice alongside, you have the perfect breakfast, and you know you are in Portugal and nowhere else. Such a feast is best enjoyed in very humble surroundings, and once you start knocking it back somewhere anaemically tidy and smart, it loses a great deal of its authentic Lusitanian savour, and this suddenly stops being the land of Camoens and Pessoa and my all time literary hero, Jose Saramago.

It was 5 years later I returned to the town and to my horror saw that the beautifully grubby station had been turned into posh flats, and the new one was miles out in the faceless suburbs. The trend in all of Portugal now is to stick all bus stations a very long way out of town, and for them to be super smart and to look like imitation airports. Worse than that, in the case of the beautifully white marble town of Estremoz in the Alentejo, they closed down the excellent cavernous one stuck smack in the centre, and now you have to catch your buses from the decrepit and defunct railway station, two tragedies in one, if you see what I mean. They no longer have trains running from Estremoz, and they no longer have a proper bus station, so they decided to fudge the two tragedies together, and now you have neither nothing nor something, and no one is pleased, and least of all me, who hates on balance to see a great many things change day by day for the so much worse.

Back in my native West Cumbria, decades ago, they closed down Maryport’s  gigantic bus station in which I took an inordinate personal pride. Maryport is only a small town with about 10,000 folk, yet its bus station would have served Detroit or even Tokyo with distinction, it was so anomalously huge. Now everyone stands outside its demolished shell, like dazed penguins at their pitiful little botched up stops to places like Allonby, the Quaker village by the sea, Dearham and Cockermouth and then down west to Workington, Whitehaven and beyond. Likewise they knocked down the beautifully mournful station at Whitehaven, where years past the local Samaritan volunteers would recommend anyone suddenly homeless to doss down in a parked double decker whose doors were usually left charitably ajar. I daren’t ask and I don’t know in 2015 if Workington bus station still stands, but suffice to say its immediate environs, meaning the nearby back alleys, back in 1967 and 1968, were where I enjoyed a kind of back alley sex life, probably now only enjoyed by literal alley cats with whiskers and fish tails to match. At 10.29 with only 1 minute to go I would run like a panting hare for the last bus  home, and my  girlfriend would tear away for hers, and if she missed it there was hell to pay, as her Dad hated more than anything to get out of his armchair any time after 9 at night and drive the four miles to pick her up, ranting at life and at everything else in his smart saloon.

This has turned into a meditation of nostalgic regret, at that which will never be with us again. I feel similarly when I see heaps of discarded music cassettes which in some cases host the finest of jazz or the classics, not all of it reissued on CD or as a download. Charity shops in the UK now often refuse to take cassettes, and some of them won’t take LPs either. However there is a vogue now among serious music lovers, especially jazz fans, to demand a return of vinyl, and indeed some specialist jazz on European labels is available now as LPs. To play them one needs a new and costly purpose built system, so it has become an expensive hobby, rather than an austere return to basics. No one has done the same with cassettes unfortunately, and if you want to get a tape player these days, you can with a struggle on the internet acquire a curious little thing like a large cigarette case which operates on batteries and produces a sound of sorts. If you try hard enough with your imagination and your flawless memory, you can turn that sound into what it sounded like 30 years ago….or possibly 300 years ago as the batteries so rapidly run down.

There are far more serious causes for regret than those, of course. Exactly 9 years ago Annie and I saw something that must have filled some Athenian Greeks with the most severe dismay. It was Easter 2006 and with Ione and her school friend Kate, both of them almost 17, we had arrived on the Cycladean Isle of Paros for a fortnight’s holiday. True to form, Ione and Kate sought out the most succulent cosmopolitan talent, and set about partying as much as possible into the small hours, staggering back to our backstreet domatia in voluble and riotous form. Annie and I awoke at the hilariously hallooing racket, and prayed that they hadn’t awoken the whole of the Cyclades and for that matter the Dodecanese and the Argo-Saronics and the Sporades, never mind us. With impressive speed they had teamed up with the local Albanian boys in preference to the Greeks, insisting that the Shiptars were infinitely generous and paid for everything and treated them with great consideration. From that day on, Ione and Kate, who had hitherto never thought about enigmatic Albania  from one year to the next, suddenly decided it was the crucial epicentre of their new and daily expanding universe.

They refused, would you believe, to come with us on fascinating excursions around Paros, and in any case slept away the mornings after partying all night. One day Annie and I decided to take a look at little Antiparos, which once upon a time was a connoisseur and undiscovered destination, but these days gets its quota of rough campers, nudist swimmers, and those who like to get away from the crowds into other smaller and more selective  crowds. There is a famous cave which is the essential on any scheduled day trip, and there is a very small port which doubles as the notional Hora, and is reached from Pounda on Paros. Other than that there is nothing very much, which of course is its special charm. We had a few hours until the ferry returned to Pounda, so we took a slow and leisurely walk to the top of the island, and took a fork which led us up to a view of a deserted bay lying far below. We were on a grassy bank at quite some elevation, and were touched and moved to take our picnic among the unexpected ruins of a very old settlement of houses. There were only scattered stones and shells of walls, and doubtless anyone who lived here had vacated the place at the start of the 20th century, if not earlier. It was inconceivably remote where we were, and reminded both of us of those melancholy deserted houses in the Outer Hebrides, remnants of the infamous Clearances such as at exquisite Bosta Sands on the Great Bernera part of North Lewis. You see the most tender and poetic landscape where the saddest things in the world took place, and you would wonder how the perpetrators had the heart to do their dirty work in these paradisical surroundings.

Another melancholy feeling took a hold, as we returned to the port and this time took a different route but with the harbour in full view, so we couldn’t possibly get lost. We were a short way from joining the track we had started en route to the ruined houses, when we came across something shocking enough to leave us speechless. We had stumbled across the little island’s sprawling rubbish dump, and of course it had to be sited somewhere. All Greek island rubbish dumps look the same, with a colossal quantity of soiled carrier bags, rotting food, a bit of broken furniture perhaps, battered cardboard boxes, bin liners stuffed with excreta from the bathroom toilet bins, as island plumbing simply cannot take toilet paper at any price. And as ever there is always an impressively repugnant stench, for a quite unreasonable radius  around.

All that is par for the course, and the obvious corollary is that no one who is sane, would  build any kind of house next to a rubbish dump, and certainly not a beautiful Greek mansion. Yet this was the case just here, and this clearly half a million euro beauty, was only a hundred yards from the Antiparos dump. The plastic bags were hurtling onto the immaculate lawns, the bags of shit were flying in the direction of the mansion’s windows, and we all but gasped at the inexplicable sight. It was like a surreal dream or that bizarre apocalyptic vision at the end of the film Zabriskie Point where no less that Grateful Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia strums the hallucinogenic chords that the world of 1971 could never possibly forget, namely Dark Star.

The vision we saw was very wrong. Someone had done this to the mansion, the mansion had not done it to itself. It was an Athenian luxury holiday villa, no doubt of that. Athenians, especially very rich ones, build themselves island hideaway fortresses as far-flung as they can make them, in pursuit of that elusive mystery that no self-respecting Greek can ever forsake, eesikhia. Ineffable and exquisite and quite mystic and indescribable tranquillity. As a rule on an idyllic island, the remoter the better, and also as a rule there should be no other house and certainly no other mansion within spoiling eyeshot.

There was no house nearby, but there was the civic rubbish dump as its  immediate neighbour. The dump was shitting all over the mansion, and the horrible stinking plastic bags were polluting the tranquil vision of the island’s purity and its eesikhia. And there could only be one explanation, as no other made any sense whatever. When this mansion was built originally, the rubbish dump must have been located elsewhere on Antiparos.  No one would have put half a million euros of real estate next to a stinking and miasmic dump. So the dump had impulsively decided to move itself next to the exquisite mansion, just to show the mansion what its diametric opposite was like in every significant respect.

And we wondered, we really wondered as we stood there baffled and quite stricken, how exactly this curious act of levitation had happened.

THE WHOLE WORLD’S WATCHING

THE WHOLE WORLD’S WATCHING

We now have the well known local writer, John Murphy, reading from his brand new novel ‘Murray’s Favourite Channels’.

[My  introduction at the Autumn Literature Festival, Ulverston, Cumbria, November 2004]

For my 51st birthday in October 2001, Annie my wife bought me a Sky subscription, and without any doubt, gave me a most powerful digital shot in the arm, from which I think I have never recovered. I have catalogued it all extensively in my book Murphy’s Favourite Channels (2004) which hearteningly in November of that year was a Novel of the Week in The Daily Telegraph, wonderfully congruent with my steely Tory right wing 1922 Committee politics, as you can imagine. At any rate in October 2001, I went from  a piffling 5 terrestrial or analogue channels, to several hundred digital ones. At the flick of a handset, the whole, and charmingly claustrophobic  world was there: Abu Dhabi soap operas, Brazilian news channels, truly insane and terrifyingly aboriginal American evangelists, Christian radio stations by the ton, as well as innumerable focus and non-focus TV channels, a great deal of it unutterably dreadful, but a solid core of some half dozen channels that were worth their weight in gold.

In brief, these latter were the subscription Artsworld (now become the very inferior Sky Arts), BBC Knowledge, thereafter the pallid, jobsworthy and complacent BBC4, and the self-explanatory Performance Channel, which sadly no longer exists. Film 4 is now a free channel, but in 2001 was by subscription, and all too briefly had 2 sister channels, Film 4 Extreme and Film 4 World, the last being dedicated to World Cinema at a rate of 42 hours a week. As I have said elsewhere, as long as that channel lasted, I was in my seventh heaven, and every week taped all 42 hours, and alas as the backlog increased exponentially, I ran out of hours in the day, week, month and year to rapturously view them. There were also numerous other film channels, most of them mainstream, but some showing foreign cinema and arthouse  American virtuosi, such as the Coen Brothers. In  addition  the channel TCM, not only showed rare and quality US film from 30 or 40 years earlier, but also during the day broadcast vintage BBC dramas of poignant excellence. Among these were Dennis Potter’s unmatchable adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which Annie and I watched no less than 3 times in a row, we found such a joy in reliving Alan Bates in full eponymous rant, when it had first appeared over 20 years earlier, the year we were married, in 1979.

BBC Knowledge was an education in itself, when it decided to broadcast a selection of the 1950s BBC series Face to Face with John Freeman. The latter was an urbane, highly intelligent and remarkably posh gent, who was both a Labour MP and an editor of the New Statesman for a time. He might have been sonorously posh and exquisitely mannered, but he knew how to ask questions that made his smuggest interviewees squirm. You would not credit the list of people he sat face to face with, even though it all happened over half a century ago. On the one hand and from the stalls, a TV comedian, a touchingly nervous and chain-smoking Tony Hancock, a very sad man pitifully plagued by alcoholism, who in 1968 would commit suicide.  On the other hand there were  stellar celebrities no less vertigo-inducing than Augustus John the painter, and brother of Gwen; Evelyn Waugh; Edith Sitwell in full regalia and looking exactly like a stuffed emu, and most remarkable of all, Carl Gustav Jung, as interviewed by Outside Broadcast Cameras as they touchingly called them then, somewhere in Switzerland. The fervent Roman Catholic convert Waugh was such a delight to behold, as he snootily referred to non-Christians as ‘heathens’, but nonetheless shit a brick when Freeman quoted the Pauline Epistles at him, with regard to the qualities bestowed on a True Believer by the Holy Spirit. One of these was Charity, and there sat infinitely uncharitable Waugh looking as if someone had casually pissed in his mouth. For the one and only time in his life, Waugh nervously changed the subject and rattled on to something else.

It was even better when Augustus John, famed for his dissolute Bohemian youth, was asked by John Freeman, how many children he had. For the life of him, he could not remember (well there was the little chap, wotsisname…and then the other one who was by ah…) Far odder than that, there was the gentleman who could speak Martian, and truly in my sober middle age, he sent a terrifying shiver up my spine. He was a professorial, thin and beaky type, who was an ET expert before the cliché acronym was at all well known. When the Freeman interviews were first broadcast,  the scariest TV series on offer was Quatermass And The Pit, which should you watch the 50s clips nowadays, has you falling about in fearless mirth. But in 1957, as a 6 year-old, I was mortally panic-stricken by the eerily rippling ground, and the mysterious invisible presences, and hid behind the sofa whenever it was on. Aged 51 in 2001, I almost ran behind the sofa too, after Freeman genially asked the prof to speak some Martian. The sagacious gent had already declared he had long been in communicatory contact with them, and could converse in their most interesting language.

The occult and mesmerising gibberish he came out with, was not something that someone could have invented from nothing, no matter how ingenious their mind, nor regardless of their brilliant linguistic skills. It was like a fairy tale witch’s kettle sinisterly whistling, crossed with a frightening acoustic hurricane, and it was for certain a speech and a lexicon from somewhere specific, not from nowhere at all, and certainly it was not a deluded fiction in the professorial mind. It was no doubt not Martian, but it was some crazed and riotous lingua of some hidden, frightening and definitely unpleasant spiritual force. I was so relieved when it stopped, as I was starting to panic and feeling as if I might evaporate and go through the window of my North Cumbrian farmhouse, should it continue.

The focus interest channels were also deeply mesmerising, though for all the wrong reasons. There was in 2001 a Dating Channel, where young men and women with little in the way of discursive communication skills, would seat themselves in a budget studio of very slim means, the camera often swooning and then cutting out, or the digital broadcast would simply freeze half way through the would be suitor’s CV, as delivered to the camera. These CVs varied between the touchingly modest and the charmlessly vainglorious, inasmuch as a very good-looking 25 year-old woman might describe herself as ‘averagely attractive’ whereas a nondescript male with ears and vanity sticking out to the two magnetic Poles, would tautologically drone that he ‘was widely regarded by a lot of people in a very wide circle, and all across the board generally, as being very good looking’. Absolutely all the young women described themselves in Babycham terms as ‘bubbly’, while the swaggering males would hail themselves with all purpose approval as ‘laid back’, ‘cool’, ‘mellow’, this, though in the main, they looked like sausage-faced butcher’s boys wearing too much hair gel from a 1930s English film comedy called It Could Only Blinking Well Happen To Me!

One of the great griefs of becoming attached to a first rate digital channel, was that when the channel ceased to make much income and was withdrawn, there was rarely if ever any prior announcement. It was there one day, and had disappeared the next, and you were only able to mourn its tragic absence, never find out why it had dissolved into the ether. This was true of the  offshoots Film 4 Extreme and Film 4 World, which one day simply disappeared without trace, and left me feeling miserable for weeks afterwards. Ditto with Performance Channel and its brief lived avatar Main Street. They had vintage American jazz concerts of Dexter Gordon and Chet Baker and the like, and they made my life a joy, but they came and went like a drunken and irresponsible father, although even a shiftless father would leave a 2 line scrawled apology as opposed to nothing at all. One other singular example was an excellent Irish digital channel called Tara TV. It had a 7 o’clock slot called Sult during the weekdays, of live Irish folk from Dublin’s tourist hotspot known as Temple Bar. The friendly and enormously gifted Planxty performer Donal Lunny was in charge, and he gathered as many first class folk talents as he could under the Sult umbrella. In addition, on Sunday mornings there were 1950s and 60s black and white RTE archive films of long gone musical performers from feis such as at Doolin, Co Clare, complete with Clare and Kerry and Gaeltacht Cork accents you could cut with a knife. It shows how wholly addled I was by this Irish channel, that one night I even switched on to a Tara TV soap set in contemporary Dublin. It was billed as the first ever realistic, no holds barred soap opera in the world, and true enough for about 20 minutes I watched it without blanching or throwing up, as I do with all other soaps, and especially the ones that are fatuously lauded as great non-elitist dramatic classics about ordinary working people, and other bilge categories invented by the self-hypnotising hacks who pen the scripts.

Then one day I switched on Tara TV, and the screen was as blank as Death. It stayed that way and stayed that way for ever. No more Sult, no more feis from Cahirciveen, nothing. It was all dead as yesterday and might as well never have been.

The most enduring gift that came from Annie’s 2001 birthday present, was the music I saw performed on the sublime and beautifully disciplined Artsworld, which I never saw put a productional foot wrong in the couple of years it existed. I had never heard any Handel operas before Bonfire Night 2001, and this was the evening, the 5th November 2001, we were treated to a complete performance of Rinaldo, also known as Orlando. It was a German production from Munich and made an extraordinarily forceful and enduring impression, as it was done in updated and imaginative clothes and sets, and in many ways was treated as playful comic burlesque. Had I been told this in advance, I would have been very dubious, but instead the sight of a high-pitched angelic counter-tenor dressed in 1920s gangster slouch hat, and a blond and baby-faced priest figure, likewise singing in his piquant castrato tones, it all combined to give the poetry of extreme contrast, or of potent and tender oxymoron, in short. I must have played all four hours of that Orlando tape at least a dozen times, over the twelve years before I left North Cumbria for Kythnos. I also went on to buy umpteen Handel operas, and fell deeply in love with Admeto, Tamerlaine and above all Rodolinda. They were once reckoned passé and fell out of fashion, because of the extreme complexity and arguable inanity of their historical and mythological plots. But who gives a damn about the plots, when it is the voices of angels you are listening to, who can sing about anything under the sun as far as I am concerned, as long as they keep on singing…

The other supreme musical gift was a Bolshoi Ballet version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which likewise I must have watched at least a dozen times. It was done in old-fashioned children’s theatre style, with not a shadow of a gimmick, as the characters all looked straight out of Hansel and Gretel original illustrations. It starts with some of the best known introductory music in the world, and with all the toys parading in a stylised slowed down march, their feet lifting a short way against an invisible gradient. By way of heart-stopping poignancy, snowfall was a projected pattering of white spots of light on the sumptuous curtains. Whichever Russian stage designer thought of that, deserved a great deal of money, and was infinitely in touch with her or his early childhood. The whole production was a tender and pregnant immersion in being a three year-old or a four year-old infant at most. Put simply, I myself was three years old every time I watched it, and I was safely back in the firelit winter of 1953. The rag doll played by a young woman, was a genius of  a rotational dancer, but being  a rag doll had to be helped to mechanical life each time. She needed to be raised upright and composite by her fellow toys, but her limp limbs kept flopping obstinately down each time. After endless machinations, the toys managed to bring her to her feet, whereupon she went into a virtuoso whirling dervish dance, you could only imagine in your dreams. Meanwhile Tchaikovsky’s tenderer than credible music, orchestrates the imperishable and inexplicable soul of infancy. It is not so much that you are tearful, while watching the panoply of tender toy creatures marking out a majestic and indestructible life of their own. Instead the absolute of piquant innocence as understood by the composer, is using you as a merciful conduit….and is not charging you a penny or a copeck for the priceless experience.

Annie and I watched it together on New Year’s Eve 2008, almost exactly a year before she died. We were both only 3 years old as we watched it, and the point about being an infant is that it is a truly timeless and wholly ineffaceable mystery. It is the precondition of entering a Divine Kingdom, and even lifelong atheists are vaguely and curiously stirred at something as remarkable as that.

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

LIGHT AND DARKNESS

I have written already about alcohol in the Isle of Kythnos context, drink-driving by which I mean drunk-driving, being more or less accepted, even de rigueur, here, but have not yet written about my own ever-changing relationship with booze. Like many UK guys of my generation, I started off drinking at the age of 16, meaning 2 years before it was legal for me to purchase it. Apropos which, it is truly fascinating that if you live in Florida, USA, legally speaking you may drive at 16, be summarily executed by lethal injection at 18, but are not allowed to buy alcohol till you are all of 21. Just imagine that, dear reader, next time you are stuck for something to imagine. 20 or 30 years ago in Florida, you could have been hideously and agonisingly fried alive at 20, but could not, before you had committed the capital offence, drink a celebratory  Jack Daniels, or even a bloody old Budweiser while toasting Peace and Goodwill to All At Blessed Yuletide, or any other time of the year. I have often wondered if as a last request on the eve of say your Dade County execution, you are permitted to have a good stiff beer or bourbon. But I somehow suspect very definitely not. Alas, they play by the arid letter in the US constitution, and pay no attention to Thomas Hardy’s admonition that ‘the letter killeth’. So does the lethal injection of course, and that is what it is all about, not about vaporous and pathetically come and go sentiment.

I was living in West Cumberland, aged 16, when I went with my pal Steve through to Maryport, to have my first ever drink. We wandered down by the disused docks and this was pre their late 1980s tarting up, and the ambitious dockland development, with the glamorous marina, and later the excellent aquarium, and also eventually a first class Indian restaurant to crown the whole affair. Indeed back in the summer of 1967, you would have stood more chance of meeting a Venusian or a Uranian in Maryport, than getting a dansak or a vindaloo down your belt. Come to think of it, about a decade later, I once asked a man in a Maryport chip shop, if there was a Chinese carry-out nearby, whereupon he pulled a grimace of infinite loathing, from which impassioned racist abhorrence then torrentially issued. He spat words to the effect that he would not eat anything of revolting provenance, tinned cat meat as part of the increasingly fantastic checklist he improvised, from those most repugnant slant-eyed Chinese gents (you can imagine how very gorgeous the Maryport gent looked himself), and the quaintly rhyming words ‘muck’ and ‘fuck’ were part of his eloquent and rebarbative culinary credo.

Steve and I went down to the docks, because almost half a century ago it was full of old-fashioned public houses. The one we went in was called The Black Lion, and sadly it has not existed for a very long time. The old barman was very friendly, and didn’t give a damn how old we were, as long as we didn’t normally walk around in short trousers, earnestly sucking lollipops the size of our unfallen testicles. Most of the customers were elderly, and the prices of the day were modest. I ordered a pint of mild which was as black as licorice water, and cost 1s/6d, i.e. significantly less than the 10 pence of today. Steve drank bitter and it was 1s/8d, whose equivalent these days would buy you nothing, not even in Greece, though possibly something modest in Albania. By the end of the night we had drunk 6  pints each, which in my case was a grave mistake. Imagine three quarters of a gallon of steamy liquid frothing around your guts, which hitherto have known no alcohol at all. Imagine also nausea of the kind that knows no pity, and so nothing analogous to Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel of the eponymous title, which someone once told me was down to his experimenting with mescaline (it also has a major character called ‘The Autodidact’, a term which appealed to me from a young age and still very much does. I believe the only true originals left in the intellectual world are the self-taught, of which George Orwell was the apotheosis, and that nearly all of us university-educated folk think, talk, listen, smile, and even breathe in the identical way).

Apropos which, an elderly poet entered at one stage, when I was half way through my third pint, and was still seeing the world through very sunny as opposed to rosy spectacles. He wasn’t of course a real poet, he just spoke in  a poetic manner, and in a Cumberland dialect poetic manner at that. With a majestic flourish he slammed down 4 bob=20p, and tersely demanded for himself and his companion:

Yah leet, an yah dark…

‘Yah’ is a corruption of ‘yan’ meaning ‘one’, and ‘leet’ means ‘light’, so he was requesting one light and one dark, or the arguably Manichean Light and Darkness combination which Steve and I had opted for, of a pint of bitter and a pint of mild.

It was definitely Manichean Light and Darkness later on, when we took the double-decker bus home. Steve lived four miles beyond me, and waved a concerned goodbye and remarked I looked a bit, or rather a lot green, like an alien perhaps, or maybe just like a vision of languishing, anguishing something or other, possibly Death. I think that’s what he said, but my senses by now were in extreme centrifugal disarray, and I felt as sick as several dogs. I stood at the top of the bus and hiccupped peristaltically. The bus came to a jarring halt, as mine was a request stop, and I had been late in standing up. Instantly I shot violently down the stairs as if propelled by a cannon, and as soon as I hit the lower deck rolled like an acrobat, albeit an inept one, into the gutter to the side of the bus stop. Without any pause, I vomited half of the universe, and kept on vomiting the other and more problematic half, for about a century or so. The bus conductor shouted was I alright, to which I responded I had probably never ever felt better.

Remarkably or maybe altogether understandably, I drank very little for the next 17 years. Given that I was sixteen at the time of the Legendary Great Puke, I had to live another lifespan before I got back into drinking again. At Oxford University and living on a budget, it never occurred to me to try a posh and exotic item like wine, as in any case in 1970 off-licences outside of London were almost non-existent.  Also I had no taste for drinking beer after beer, and for sitting all night in a pub, and never would. In the single sex colleges of those days, there were beer cellars where you could buy half pints of cider, which I did about twice at lunchtime, and then found myself fast asleep for the rest of the afternoon. One awoke wondering who one was, and why one was, and whether it would be best just to go back to sleep again, by way of cogently resolving the  life-changing answers. There was a bastard of an essay to write as ever, and in my cider stupor, I wondered whether anyone would ever invent a self-writing essay kit, which in my Somerset apple fug I thought might be feasible, with a kind of rotating inked drum, and someone feeding a few excellent facts in at the other end, preferably an old retired man with a whole set of encyclopaedias, who needed to earn a handy bob or two.

Before I met my wife Annie, I had a year or two of pub drinking in Cumbria, pints of lager which in 1977 were 25p each, or 4 (= a good skinful) for a £1. Once Annie and I were wedded in 1979, and later we looked back on this in dumb marvel, we drank very little for the first 5 years of our marriage. I was an accomplished cook, and made us an exotic dinner every night, the same which a few years later would have cried out for a nice bottle of wine to wash it down. It was partly that we weren’t well off, but also we just did not have that conditioned reflex of an overwhelming itch at the back of the throat which spells out all too clearly, that whether you like it or not, from now on you are a couple who are a bottle a night, for the rest of your days. In our early ignoramus days, instead of wine every night to go with the gourmet grub I’d cooked, we would occasionally have a bottle of Olde English Cyder, which as they say gets you off in terms of potency, but does nothing for your palate, as it tastes like sugar-free lemonade coincidentally infused with TNT.

The  big breakthrough for the pair of us as novice drinkers, was when I got a job in a smart new Cumbrian off-licence, in the spring of 1984, meaning when I was 33 years old, and Annie a fledgling of 28. Faced with all these beautifully designed bottles of wine every night, I could not help but searchingly peruse them. I made a few obvious observations, such as the fancier the calligraphy of the label, the likelier it was to be both pricier and a more delicious wine. Both Annie and I had been very naive about wine hitherto. If we bought a bottle, it was always the cheapest, which in the case of white, was the famous Lutomer Riesling, available in 1 and a half litre bottles, and produced in the former Yugoslavia. It was definitely very drinkable and unarguably  dirt cheap. We never drank any red, as dirt cheap red always tasted like vinegar, and gave us even worse hangovers than rotgut white. That all changed when I started to work at the off-licence, and instead of buying the very cheapest red, we whacked out on one costing maybe a £1, or even £1.50 more. Little by little we upped our expenditure, as we realised that for only a couple of quid more, we could taste palpably divine ambrosia, if only we, forgive the pun, had the requisite bottle. When 30 years ago we eventually got up to a vertiginously expensive £4.25 a bottle for Bordeaux, we realised that really good red wine is like a gleeful passport to Ineffable Paradise. That Bordeaux was so delicate, and yet so beautifully heavy, and so slyly subtle, and yet so ingenuously frank, and yes, when the bottle was finished, it was all we could do not to weep at the slammed shut gates of Paradise, and wish we had bought 2 bottles, no, 3, no, a case, no, a  gross, but alas by now the off-licence was good and closed till tomorrow.

And so it carried on for the next 25 years in Annie’s case, until she died in 2009. Diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in 2008, we thought perhaps she would be told to lay off the wine as the secondaries were in her liver and her bones. The dry old oncologist looked at us with compassion and said, keep on drinking if it is something you enjoy, and why on earth reduce the quality of your life, in the tough circumstances you are facing? He could probably had added that with her liver full of metastasising secondaries, a few glasses of wine would make no difference to anything, but he left it to our imagination.

Now that I am on my own in Greece I am in something of a quandary wine-wise. I still prefer red to white, but that is qualified by the fact I love resinated white, aka retsina, which a lot of non-Greeks think tastes like Harpic or Zal disinfectant. Maddeningly, none of the three supermarkets in the port sell the bargain bumper bottle of Kourtaki, and unlike Athens it is well nigh impossible to get retsina in any Kythnos restaurants. A decent Greek red might be 15 or 20 euros in the shops, and frankly tastes like something very nice from Bulgaria or Argentina, but you’d get the equivalent in the UK for 6 or 7 euros at most. I have compromised by settling for the unassuming but bloody great Afelia Red at 4.50 euros for a gigantic bottle. I am such a bugger for a bargain and always will be. It is what I could call very good rough, or rather truly excellent rough red. It has guts and fire and not a lot of  subtlety, and come to think of it that would be a fine epitaph for anyone when they leave this world on an uncertain one way trip, would it not?

LOVE IN THE RAW

LOVE IN THE RAW

Today I saw two people having furious sex on the ground in the middle of the port here in Kythnos, and the woman was severely cross-eyed…

OK, I’m lying, but it was a damn good lie wasn’t it, and I bet you were half convinced by the adventitious squint-eyed detail? Facile liars as opposed to vauntingly subtle bastards like me, don’t give that kind of engaging incidental detail, as they have neither the fertile mind nor the unfettered  imagination that is luckily mine. There was a strong element of truth in it though, because if you substitute ‘cats’ for ‘people’ you have the real  and unadorned shebang (oops, best word?) in a nutshell . En route to the Glaros, and my work for the day on my laptop, I beheld two young cats going at it with great relish, and in full view of anyone walking that way. If you think about it, and wherever you are in the world, you sometimes see dogs or cats coupling, but usually a little out of sight, and with a little chaste decorum, as they are sick as you would be, of having buckets of water thrown on them, precisely as you yourself were, 60-plus UK woman, back in Runcorn or Caterham or Swansea or Cupar, Fife, in the fanny and backside-freezing December of 1974, when you were carrying on in parked cars and down back alleys, with that poor nerve-ridden woman’s weak-willed and over-sexed husband called Terence of all Christian names and…but more of that later… methavrio = the day after tomorrow,  at any rate.

And the she-cat, let’s call her Clothilde, here in the port, really was squint-eyed, and I had noticed that strong squint for a week now. She was very young like they all are, this cohort of about 10 cats, who were summarily abandoned by a very handsome Bulgarian woman, who took her kids and her lovable Walt Disney dog to a new job on the mainland, but left her numerous little cats to fend for themselves. Daft arse me soon noticed them, and they noticed an obvious English cootchy-coo daft arse with knobs on, and I started feeding them delicatessen ham, since when they have followed me as if I am either Doctor Dolittle or the Pied Piper, who bizarrely is wearing  a featherless flat cap, rather than a peaked and feathered one, carrying a laptop as opposed to a sonorous flute, not to speak of a battered carrier bag with the up-poking electrical lead complete with UK adaptor, every time they hurry across to see me.

Normally this pair, Lothario of the long and limber legs, and the practised downthrust, and also most effortlessly deft upthrust, and the squint-eyed distress-free damsel Clothilde, growling ecstatically beneath him, would have raced after me for my delicious ham. But instead they were locked in amorous dalliance, and guess what, they were cruelly torn. Ham or nookie, bloody old nookie or bloody old ham, nicht wahr? Tell me, to adopt the WW2  Old Blighty attitude and diction, what would you have done, my old chums, if you had been a cat, either severely cross-eyed or not? Would you have gone for mortal sustenance, or for mortal and euphoric pleasure in your exquisite genital capillaries? Hands up. Yes, yes, yes. Yes, me too. I would have wanted both, just like you, and just like those two brainless cats.

Not so, as it transpired with those highly discriminating cats. After maybe three more, take it or leave indifferent shafts, Lothario leapt off first, followed by growling Squint Eye Clothilde, and they pursued me to the harbour wall, where I duly fed them and five other cats some processed ham.

A couple of extended and very pertinent thoughts here, and especially apropos yesterday’s report on beauty and ugliness in human couples, and how it affects the fragile dynamic of the winsome duo, if at all.

The she-cat Clothilde did not know she was squint- eyed, and the he-cat Lothario assuredly did not know it either, the way he was deliriously pumping away. I was about to add ‘as if there were no tomorrow’  but then again all too obviously, no cat in existence and since the beginning of time, has ever understood the concept of ‘tomorrow’. Likewise, even if both of them had known that she was squint-eyed, it would have made no difference to her sexual attractiveness, as understood by ferociously shafting and smirking Lothario, nor to her considered view of herself, assuming she had a considered view of herself, which on deep and sober reflection I think she actually did not.

Copulating in public was again a meaningless anthropomorphic concept, and an absurd notional prohibition as far as these two were concerned. They had no notion of sex being shameful, nor indeed of it being anything describable as a reified entity known as Sex, with all the associated sociological, physiological, anthropological baggage or luggage, or any other word ending in –age, such as ‘frottage’ or ‘greengage’ (and just think, if you are a human being rather than a cat reading this, how welcome it would be to endure frottage with a good old greengage, rather than say with an abrasive Brillo pad).

Moving away from cats to humans, I have only twice in my life seen human beings copulating in flesh and blood, as opposed to the numerous films and plays on TV with their convincing coital depictions, at least 5 a night on a good night, ever since about 1968…

One was a disguised copulation, but it couldn’t have been anything else. There was a 100 yard length of tarred wooden boarding on the seashore in the little Cumbrian pit village, where I grew up. It demarcated the railway station on the side of the shore, and in the normal course of things no one would have thought of leaning against it, as it was surrounded by high weeds, not to speak of the tar smears that were incidental of a hot summer.

Not so Flogger, and his forever changing best-beloved. Flogger (his soubriquet, not his real name, and I believe it related to his crudely uninhibited exploration of the opposite sex, which amounted to a kind of summary punishment of them as a sex) was about 18 when I was 12, and he wore the tightest ice blue jeans I have ever seen anyone wear. They were so tight, they might conceivably have constricted his testicular circulation, and affected both his potence and his fertility. But far from it, at least as far as the potence variable went. He and his drainpipe ice blues were, most summer evenings, to be observed rammed up against a  young woman, whose face was very hard to descry, as Flogger’s impassioned and osculating head and mouth were covering most of it. They were both fully clothed on a roasting summer evening, but the juncture of his torso with hers, could only have been achieved by sexual penetration, even if it was when fully girt in his ice blues and t-shirt. It might theoretically have been the most leaden of heavy petting was going on, but as sure as shot he was deep inside of her, and her passionate facial expressions, even though they were rarely glimpsed, indicated she was being penetrated, it couldn’t have been anything else. The pair of them, with the woman’s identity changing approximately every three days, would spend entire summer evenings in this clothed copulation, her with her skirt backside hitched against the tarred boards, and he with his ice blues protectively covering her, and of course forcefully ramming her, not unlike old Lothario the Kythnos he-cat some half a century later.

The other public sex was a lot less ambiguous. The same village shoreline was covered in vast numbers of what we called ‘mine-holes’,  meaning they had been mined for defensive purposes in WW2. It had all been very well monitored, and all scrupulously recorded as to their dispersal,  so that after the War, any unexploded mines were easily disposed of. The result was there must have been about forty or fifty shallow pits the size of small tadpole ponds, along the extended grass banks of the shoreline. Kids might construct themselves a camp inside of one, and young adults who did not possess a car, which was most of West Cumberland in the 50s and early 60s, could find there a summer refuge for good old copulation, as opposed to genteel picnics or amateur entomology, or immersion in the deeply hypnotising minutiae of the copious West Cumbrian lepidoptera. It was of course contingent on not being spotted by irreverent local urchins, who were just on the look-out for such an epic discovery. Even a 7 year-old boy understands that a man’s arse pumping up and down while he lies upon a woman in a mine-hole, has something to do with the vital things of life. Then when the man explodes and the pumping stops, it was as it were a mimicry of the explosion of the mine. The mine was blown up, in order that ultimately a man could take his girlfriend there for his delectation, and hopefully he would explode in imitation of the peace that was hoped would endure for evermore.

REG THINKS FAT IS SO BEAUTIFUL

REG THINKS FAT IS SO BEAUTIFUL

The other day here on Kythnos I was surprised to see a  very good looking young Greek woman with a  very ugly Greek husband. I had never seen either of them around before, so safe to say they were Easter tourists from Athens. They had an extremely handsome toddler son, who patently took after Aphrodite Mum not Outstanding Competition for Cyclops Dad, and plug-ugly Pops was obviously very proud of his little boy, and doubtless astonished by the fact he had sired something of such beauty and living poetry. I had noticed her on her own first of all, with a fancy camera taking fancy shots of all sorts of things, including bobbing boats in the harbour, and a little cat eating some discarded ham by the sea front. She looked about 30, as did her husband, and as if she had consuming interests and hobbies, because her camera was an expensive and impressive one. Her husband by his cheerful woodenness, looked as if he had neither time nor energy to have hobbies, and no interest in anything but his wife and his lovely child, and possibly his job.

The wife had a nice trim figure, but she was wearing dark glasses like all Greeks do, unless it’s snowing heavily or torrentially pissing down, so one couldn’t make out her features precisely, yet enough to know they were very alluring ones. Her husband who she reconnoitred with at the top of the harbour, with son in tow, was wearing shades as well, which was a good idea in his case, but did not hide the fact he looked like a walking pork pie, with a lot of stubbly whiskers and a deal of surplus flab around the gizzard. He was dark-shaven, heavy-featured, had loose and lacklustre jowls, a kind of placid doziness in his expression, and by rights ought to have been an obligatory  bachelor for the rest of his days. As they met up at the harbour’s edge, she with posh camera and he with bonny little son, I seriously expected her to stop dead, and either say aloud or communicate by telepathy to someone like me, who was not only staring at them in puzzlement, but perfectly understood her harrowing dilemma:

What the hell  is a nice looking woman like me, doing married to a truly ugly bugger like you?

To my genuine  surprise she didn’t, but bent down and embraced her son, and murmured something amiable to Papa Quasimodo whose tender hand the boy was still holding.

At this point I confidently expect the Flat-Earthers among you, to start off on a lecture about looks and beauty being subjective, and that this young woman might genuinely think her young husband was handsome. I can agree with you to the extent that the subject is nuanced and complex, inasmuch as there are people who are beautiful in their ugliness, and likewise those who are ugly in their beauty. But there are also people who are beautiful in their beauty, and ugly in their ugliness, and these last comprehended Mrs Posh Camera and her Neanderthal clone of a piggy old husband. After all, 98% of the world thinks George Clooney and Nicole Kidman are very handsome film stars, whereas no one in the world ever thought the film star and comedian, the late Marty Feldman, with his extreme exophthalmia and mad and frightening expression, was gorgeous to a fault. I do however know a few women who think Clooney is nothing special when it comes to looks, but not even they would say that he was downright ugly. I can also readily admit that good looks and sexual charisma are not necessarily congruous and coterminous. Read enough biographies of the musicians, writers and artists of the world, especially of the 19th century, and there were numerous ugly musicians and many plug ugly writers who were indubitable magnets for women. But even those women, when they lay awake after their steaming amorous dalliance, would say to themselves, yes,  yes, that was oh so bloody wonderful, he was like a 1000 tigers between the sheets, even if he was, dear me, as ugly as sin.

But then like everything in this baffling life, there are always endless variables to juggle with. Dr Desmond Morris of the erstwhile The Human Zoo fame, would have said that good lookers select good lookers for evolutionary strength and solidarity. On that basis, Mrs Camera was taking a risk with her baboon helpmeet, because for all she knew the gorgeous little boy she had had, might have looked like a baby baboon, and with dominant and recessive genes being what they are, the next three kiddiwinks might well be thus. Other ancillary considerations are that her apparent husband might not have been her husband, but her brother or her brother in law or her family friend. I doubt all this on several scores, especially because of the extreme and conjugal familiarity between the pair of them. In that case, we are left with pondering her anomalous motives for choosing a baboon for her lifelong companion, and the father of her children. These likewise are endless and myriad but the likeliest candidates are possibly as follows:

They were childhood sweethearts and have stayed together as a result, and she hasn’t noticed that, just as she has changed for the even better looking, so  he has changed for the far worse looking. That is based on the notion that in his childhood he was handsome, and not a perfect replica of a horse’s arse, and that again is infinitely questionable.

They had only just met and they were drunk when they had the coition that led to their lovely son. She hallucinated her inebriated bedfellow as George Clooney, and had never heard of Marty Feldman, so was cruelly short-changed in that respect.

He is immensely rich and has an Athens carpet business that sells more carpets in a week that the rest of Greece does in a month. To quote from two previous pieces of mine, money is so, so sexy, and also to turn the appalling sexist adage on its head, you don’t care who is poking your  fire and are well aware your mantelpiece is a great deal more attractive, than the poker or the poker wielder, who as lungee and lunger, looks both totally demented, and as ugly as last year’s rain.

I have so far omitted to reverse the genders and to instance examples of a good looking man, with a female partner who is overwhelmingly plain or ugly or otherwise repugnant. They are far rarer than the frequently ugly man with the frequently gorgeous woman, and I can think only of two examples, who as it happens are both mainland Greeks from Lavrio.  In one case he is in his late 60s, and has kept his looks, with high cheekbones and a real enduring handsomeness. His wife of the same age has patently lost most of hers, and sadly she knows as much, and drags herself about limply as a result. The give away with regard to her giving up (note the two potent postpositions), is that in cool weather she always wears the same very plain and fashionless and ugly anorak coat. Day in day out, week in week out. It is an admission of tragic but inevitable defeat, and only looking  after her grandkids seems to give her any spirit these days. In the other case, the couple are half their age, and the husband is a bright and vigorous and friendly young cafe owner, and his wife who is an accountant is sullen and staid and eternally  depressed. She has also sadly lost her youthful looks, puts her hair in a sadistic and ungainly bun, but the transparent cause is that she has a small child with severe behavioural problems, and if I had that child, I would be permanently on edge and in the depthless doldrums and have lost my looks too.

Our notions of charismatic beauty are subjective yes, and only twice in my life have I been seized by an unbelievably overpowering attraction for someone who on commonsense reflection, could never be even a transient five minute partner. One I have already mentioned, and she was the blond and blindingly voluptuous Albanian hotdog seller outside Durres railway station two years ago. She was about 40 and blonder than blond, and with a rich and fertile and succulent figure a 14 year old boy would have ransomed his future, and his past, and all his vital organs, and especially his genitals, and all his future income, including any possible legacies, pensions, or other substantial emoluments, to have 5 minutes, no 1 minute, no 5 seconds,  no 1 second, no, even a microsecond, of unfettered access to the same unmatchable Illyrian goddess.

The other was a woman of mid twenties, when I was a young man of 31, happily married to my beautiful wife Annie, the pair of us travelling on a budget across Europe and Turkey in the summer of 1982. One night we were staying in a cheap hotel in Izmir, formerly Smyrna of the terrible sectarian massacres of 1922. We only stayed there one night before carrying on to Cesme, and in the morning  as I was dawdling on the staircase, I encountered this young woman who looked possibly 24 or 25, meaning born somewhere around 1958. She was cleaning the grubby wooden stairs with a broom and a pan, and her plain and economical dress was such as to suggest she was a cleaner and nothing else, i.e. not the moneyed daughter of the hotel proprietor. She had a headscarf on and was tall for a girl and had cheap denims and wore a simple and cheap green blouse. It is not easy to put into words, but she was infinitely magnetising and by that I mean her timeless and picturesque face more than her body. She had a very handsome face and the face seemed to be an exact and  eternal one. That possibly sounds very grand, but all I mean is that face could have existed in  1482 and 1782 as well as 1982, whereas plenty of faces, as you know, could only have existed in the last 10 or 20 years, they are so much of the moment.

She had especially tranquil and sagacious eyes, as if she had seen things and experienced much, that had left her pensive, and at times sad and regretful. She took a  quick glance at me, gave a trace of a smile, and then looked modestly away, no doubt informed either by her boss or her parents not to gawk at strangers. I regretted this, as I would have liked her to look me full in my eyes, so that she could see how much I was moved and stirred by her. It wasn’t even desire, it was more I seemed to glimpse the subtle and distilled and mesmerising essence of her being. Later I reflected that as a young Turkish cleaner girl in 1982, her income would be wretched, and she probably lived with her parents in borderline poverty. Had I not been married, I would seriously have tried to talk to her in my 10 words of Turkish which included the indispensable numerals 1, 2, 3, bir, iki, uc. Recalling the hoary cliché of The Face That Launched 1000 Ships, I saw for the first time that it was not a cliché at all, and in her I had glimpsed such a face. She had a face one would yearn for, pine for, live for, even die for. And sadly, and perhaps all for the best, she didn’t even know it. One quick look at her and I knew for a fact she thought of herself as absolutely nothing special at all.

From the sublime to the buffoonish, and only first to remark that when we talk about beauty we mean principally the person’s face and nothing else. A handsome woman can be a cripple with a withered body in a wheelchair, and a good looking man with striking features can have a sizeable paunch and still be good looking. About two decades ago, this had evidently occurred to an enterprising husband in his late twenties, who I encountered not once but twice in the garish pages of one of those cheap entertainment magazines you can buy in the UK, with names like Chat and Real Life and Take A Break. Their ancestors of the 1950s and 60s were called Tit-Bits and Reveille, and they specialised in gossipy real life stories, that were sensational at the time without being over risqué. The latest generation of these mags, stops at more or less nothing,  though usually they are free of any four letter words. But the stories in Chat might be such as ‘My Boyfriend Cheated With My Mother’ or ‘I Cheated With my Boyfriend’s Father’ or even worse ‘My Boyfriend Cheated With My Grandmother When I Had Cancer’. Lest you are wondering why an august literary gent like me was reading this kind of thing, it was partly because I was in 1994 superintending Ione aged 5, in one of those converted warehouses where they have huge inflatables and chutes and airblown plastic balls  reminiscent of table tennis balls. This one was called Play City and it was a reasonable enough description. The parents stood at a distance in the main, as the play material was safe as houses, and so as the kids whooped and yahooed, the Mums and Dads whiled away the time as best they could.

I had forgotten to bring my copiously annotated collectable edition of Proust in the original, so instead sat and read Chat,  which in some ways was even more gripping. The story that eventually caught my eye, was told by a rather complacent looking man of late twenties, and it was an odd and unusual piece, inasmuch as he was writing an eloquent apology for a neglected and misunderstood species, namely his wife, let’s call her Sharon, aged 25. There was a picture of Sharon and she had an undeniably pretty face, and she was also undeniably very fat. Her husband, let’s call him Reg, who had jet black and oiled hair, and whose job was as a plumber (one who to my eyes looked as if he might have smirked, even sneered, more than smiled at his customers) really loved the fact she was fat, and declared that her fatness was a definite erotic turn on. Good old Reg didn’t stop at that, and with the exacting authorial help of Sharon, the two of them grew warmly specific in the pages of Chat about the exquisiteness of the copious folds of her jelly belly, the munificence of her vast tree trunk thighs, how she loved him caressing the twin epic colossi of her splendid outsize buttocks, and how her gigantic and pendulous breasts which were size 48 as far as I recall, were just the ticket as far as slavishly adoring Reg was concerned.

Sharon chuckled in the same pages to the effect that Reg wanted her to be even fatter, as the fatter she was, the more the old smirking plumber was turned on. She reciprocally was turned on by him being turned on, and I believe we were treated to him saying he was turned on by her being turned on, by him being turned on. These serial escalations might have gone on for ever like something out of Samuel Beckett, but thank God, eventually they stopped. At any rate old Reg the iconoclast, who said that very fat women were the best thing since sliced bread, also revealed he’d started a kind of society with membership fees for people who liked fat women. These couples would write to each other (the internet hadn’t quite happened by 1994) with updates of say Gloria of Swanage putting on four more inches round her massive backside alone, exchanging alluring deshabille shots and even nude photos of her now gargantuan bottom, and naturally enough, and in season, swap tinsel strewn Christmas cards with pictures of very fat women dressed as Santa Claus, and so on.

Aside from the obvious health issues, whereby the peevish plumber got what turned him on at the expense of wife Sharon’s heart being overloaded with arguably lethal fat, there was also the question of the lucre. These real life stories if accepted for mags like Chat were paid for, all of £100 at the time, and as Sharon was a supermarket check out assistant (Reg insisted she sit on her delicious and colossal behind all day, in order to gain the extra pounds) she’d have had to do a hell of a lot of checking out to make that kind of pin money. True illumination  for me came a month later when in the same Play City, I picked up another mag called Real Life, and would you believe, there were Reg and Sharon again? A lot of these heaps of mags for customers are severely out of date, of course, but the Chat I’d looked at earlier was still there, and I compared dates, and they were only a month apart. I was expecting at the very least this time to read a different slant on fatness and sexiness and erotic specificities, certainly not an exact copy of the earlier article. But so amazingly it proved, and I still wonder 20 years later how pissed off the respective editors of the two magazines were to see such authorial perfidy. Reg and Sharon had shuffled the paragraphs about a bit, but the content was identical and only the photos of husband and wife were different.

So what does all that prove? Simple in my view. Never marry a guy called Reg, particularly if he’s a peevish plumber, as you will be risking your poor old heart, and not in the name of enduring love, believe you me.