HOW TO BE HAPPY THOUGH HUMAN

HOW TO BE HAPPY THOUGH HUMAN

(I am taking an extended summer holiday, and also doing some fiction teaching here on Kythnos, and there will be no new post until  FRIDAY, AUGUST 28th. I do hope you have an excellent summer, wherever you are. You can always contact me direct about anything, at john@writinginkythnos.com)

The above is the provocative title of a book, that became very popular when it appeared in UK Penguin in 1957. Originally published in the USA in 1932, when the author W Beran Wolfe was 32, it expounded a no-nonsense formula for human happiness based on Adlerian psychotherapeutic theory. Born in 1900 in Vienna, Wolfe was educated in the States, and then returned to Austria to be Alfred Adler’s assistant. Alfred Adler (1870-1937) as I’m sure you know, was one third of the great triumvirate of German-speaking psychoanalysts, the others being Sigmund Freud and the Swiss, CG Jung. Beran Wolfe was killed in an accident in obscure circumstances in 1935, so only had 3 years to enjoy his success in the United States, and had been dead 22 years before he made his impact in the UK. His only other well known publication was the modestly titled The Art of Understanding Women, which appeared in that perennially genteel and insightful publication Esquire. He claimed he did all his writing between 11pm and 3am, and always had gramophone records playing as he did.

His self-help book uses the classically Adlerian notions of organ weakness/organ inferiority and inferiority complexes, as a means of explaining the weak choices and weak lifestyles some of us ultimately embrace, and our concomitant and often profound unhappiness. Any of us can have some kind of deficiency in our somatic integrity, but we always have available to us the choices of either positive or negative compensations. As an extreme example, he cites the sad and real case of an American man with some rare and rotting and malodorous skin disease, who could have gone away and become a recluse or an alcoholic or a drug addict, or committed suicide. Instead he compensated for his ‘organ inferiority’, by taking a job in a stinking glue factory, where his hideous condition was no hindrance, indeed a positive advantage. Using the same logic, Wolfe mordantly commented that though he had listened to dozens of patients agonising about their claustrophobia, and the way their lives were ruined by their fear of being locked inside public lavatories, he had never met a single one who had attempted a positive and truly adult psychological compensation. By that he meant turning the problem on its head, and inventing an appropriate foolproof safety device, where one would always be able to get out of the panic-stricken scenario. On the same lines, he was always drily bemused by the rich and spoiled of his clients, who spent hours on end fretting about the deep meaning of life, complete sometimes with esoteric philosophy, their possible involvement with oriental religion or Madame Blavatsky or yoga, and who always turned a shade of spectral white when he asked them the simple question, why don’t you go out and get a job (and in passing contribute to the world in whatever way you can, and possibly find a sense of meaning in life that way)?

Another thing he saw as an antidote to deep-rooted human unhappiness, was the patient cultivation of a hobby or an art or an interest, but as something pleasurable in itself, rather than one other thing to get competitive and neurotic about. No slouch in this regard himself, with their permission, he took to sculpting the busts of some of his patients, no doubt with his favourite classical music playing the while, an early and unselfconscious example of that unlovely neologism of ‘multi-tasking’. His major ethical proposition, was that a mature adult always wishes to give and contribute to the world, whereas an infantilised neurotic habitually and vainly wants the world to service/pamper him or her. The neurotic, instead of inhabiting what Wolfe would have called the healthy Main Arena of Life, prefers what he derisively termed The Sideshows, namely things like alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, crank philosophies, crank religions, obsessive compulsions, phobias and other kinds of regressive emotional states. On that scale, I wonder if one sign of my own possible senescent vulnerability, is that as far as I can see, I have no hobbies now, as a 64 year-old man. To be sure, I did as a schoolkid of 12, and avidly collected cigarette packets from all around the world, as the only example of often stunningly beautiful graphic design I had access to in ugly old West Cumbria in 1962. I also saved stamps, fitfully if passionately, and by that means came to know the exotic and incredibly alluring names of Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) and St Pierre et Miquelon (a French ‘possession’ but next to Canada), not to speak of Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso), and the far from alluring designations of British and Italian Somaliland. These days, my only hobbies are collecting books of mostly foreign fiction in translation, and CDs of jazz  and classical music, but they are not so much a pastime as something as vital as eating, as far as I’m concerned. If that sounds altogether precious, believe me if I didn’t have at least my jazz and opera albums ready to hand here in Kythnos 24/7, I would get  in a very low way.

Here is someone of whom Beran Wolfe would have heartily approved. The Swiss, Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) started life as a distinguished maths professor, and then became one of the world’s leading musical conductors (talk about spurning obsessive, neurotic sideshows with a vengeance). He founded his own orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and was one of the first important conductors to take jazz seriously, writing in praise of Sidney Bechet in 1919. He vehemently disliked everything that Schoenberg stood for, and in 1961, using Husserlian phenomenology combined with his brainbox mathematical training, eloquently condemned the 12-tone idiom as false and irrational. While he was at, it he also castigated his idol Stravinsky for his indulgence in the same thing.

Attaboy. How to be happy though human.

 

 

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THAT STRANGE SIXTH SENSE

THAT STRANGE SIXTH SENSE

One day in the summer of 1961, when I was 10, my brother Bryce who worked in a Cumbrian bank brought home a colleague I had never met before, called Danny Pride. Bryce was 17 and Danny was probably about 19, and he was plump and had puffy and sullen eyes, and a strange heaviness of expression around the cheeks and jawline. He seemed friendly enough to start with, and before long he and I were involved in the usual horseplay of young kids and their older brothers’ mates. At one stage he had my arm pinned, and then he began to twist my wrist in a way that was decidedly painful. It all happened in a few seconds, but I had plenty of experience of horseplay with older boys, and none of them had ever got near causing me any pain, in the same way that no one but a weird bastard or repulsive sadist would ever play with a tiny kitten or defenceless pup and deliberately hurt it. The point was I was definitely embarrassed, as well as in pain by what he was doing. I wanted to tell him he was hurting me, but  felt it would have drawn attention to something wrong and embarrassing in him, so as a result I put up with the torture till Danny decided to stop it. As soon as he did, and with an insincere guffaw told me I was a young squirt, I made some excuse and ran outside into the safety of the garden. Bryce had noticed none of this and I said nothing about it at the time, but when years later I mentioned the event, my  brother turned thoughtful and said that Danny had been put away in jail for 18 months, about a year after he’d been at our house. He had embezzled £1500 from the bank where he and Bryce had worked, a vast amount of money in the early 1960s (it was 5 years of his wages. Danny and Bryce would have been making about £300 a year as junior bank clerks), and been incarcerated in Durham clink as a result.

To see a direct causal relationship between the weird and covert brutality of a moody 19 year-old towards a 10 year-old kid, and the capacity to become an ambitious criminal, might seem a bit fanciful. I think what I am trying to say is that if Danny hadn’t gone on to be a big time surreptitious thief, he would have gone on to be something else of  a sinister and clandestine nature. Suffice to say if he had ever married, I would not have wished to be his wife, as though he might not literally have twisted her arm for decades just for the pleasure of it (though in fact, I think he very likely would have done so) he would have probably done the equivalent of it in emotional and  manipulative terms. If Danny Pride is alive today he will be 73, and might well have numerous grandchildren across a considerable age range. I wonder if they know about his prison sentence, or whether he has managed to hide that successfully from all but a few with a very long memory. I also very pertinently wonder if he twists his young grandsons’ arms painfully, or if he has finally learned the dangerous error of his peculiar ways.

The theme I am exploring is that of intuitive instinct, and the phenomena of instant likes and instant dislikes. The other day a smiling and friendly woman about my own age, with liquid, tender eyes and an unusually animated and expressive face, came into the Glaros, and like everyone else was looking for the correct light switch for the toilets. There are 3 double switches all adjacent, 2 of which typically do not work anything, and it is the double one in the middle that does the trick. Because Marianna who has run the place for 20 years and has pissed there at least 7200 times, obviously knows the right switches, i.e. 33% of the available options, and because all of her regulars do, she makes the false and ludicrous analogy that the whole world must comprehend what for her is cognitive child’s play. Far from it. Yesterday no less than 3 foreign tourists in a row all fumbled hopelessly with the wrong switches, and ended up urinating and defecating in the unlovely pitch dark inside. This particular woman my age who turned out to be Swedish and from Uppsala, also couldn’t find the correct light switch, so once she was inside, I put it on for her discreetly and anonymously as it were. When she came out and was fumbling to find out how to turn it off, I shouted across helpfully ‘the middle’, and her gratitude was instant and heartfelt. Then as she walked to the door, she stopped and asked me frankly if humbly, what I was writing there at my laptop, as she was truly fascinated by the sight. She said I looked like something out of a film, the ex-pat writer sat in a Greek cafe, Graham Greene par excellence, and the sight was truly mesmerising. I smiled back at her touching openness and carefully explained to her about my blog and also that by way of making a living, I taught residential fiction classes here in Kythnos, to people who wrote in English. Five minutes later I had learnt that by a fluke she taught Creative Writing herself, including Fiction, in a private university near Uppsala, though she admitted dourly she was not a published writer herself, even if she had written a great deal of poetry. She also informed me that the money she was paid was derisory, but what was money set beside doing something that you really love? All that, as well as she was twice married, and with two lots of grown kids, and that she had spent years in Valparaiso  and in Edinburgh, which partly explained why there was a slight Scots inflection to her excellent English.

You have guessed what I am getting at. Namely that she, Brigitte, and I, JM, took to each other immediately and by unshakeable instinct. As it happened she had to get back soon on the family yacht and proceed to Serifos, but if she hadn’t been doing so, we’d have doubtless spent an hour or two in a cafe swapping our life stories, talking about fiction, fiction teaching, Valparaiso, the Brazilian writers Jorge Amado, Machado de Assis, Clarice Lispector (1920-1977, said by some to be the greatest Jewish writer since Kafka), Edinburgh, Ingmar Bergman, and our numerous favourite composers. All that discernible in less than 5 minutes, and probably only occasioned by the fact that Marianna adamantly scoffs at the idea of writing a helpful message plus prominent arrow in English next to the bog light switches. Marianna genuinely thinks it would be tantamount to accusing the tourists of being idiots, no matter that every day in summer about a dozen of the poor bastards spend their time doing the mime of the urgent bladder and the urgent bowels, and of the truly desperate and innocently confused.

RIP ME OFF, IF YOU DARE

RIP ME OFF, IF YOU DARE

Marianna of the Glaros Cafe calls it fishing, or at any rate she uses the verb psarevo, meaning ‘I fish’, to describe what is otherwise called hustling for customers. Here on Kythnos in the middle of an economic crisis and when Athenian tourists, usually the bulk of visitors to the island, are still restricted to 60 euros from the ATM  per day, there is no mileage in being shy  and restrained about seeking custom from those who have the ackers/ money/ dosh. I admire Marianna who is 50 years old immensely. She has about 40 items of English, most of them words like halloharyou, fresh fruit juice, want ice cubes, sit down please, Greek medium sweet coffee, cheese and tomato omelette, wifi password, and so on. With that frail armoury, she will stand by the harbour as the monied foreigners head from the yachts towards the supermarkets, and she will fish away despite all the odds. Her fishing is successful because it is infinitely persistent and she keeps on going when anyone else would give up. She will be politely refused or shyly and laboriously evaded 9 times (we’ll be back later, they smile with such sincerity, and of course they never are) but will make a killing on the 10th, and so as she has wisely and uniquely calculated, it is worth the effort. She has three regular assistants plus Chrisoula her sister working here, yet only Marianna will do this very practical revenue raising, alive to the fact they have to pay an extortionate rent of 900 euros a month, the winter ones included.

This morning she has 2 German families with teenage kids, hungrily knocking back massive omelettes, eggs and bacon, fresh orange juice complete with plastic umbrellas and orange slices, and filter coffees. She will rake in about 70 euros and good for her. It is no trade secret to point out that the Glaros menu prices (and this applies to all the other cafes, though not the restaurants) are different from those the regulars pay. In general the tourists pay a euro extra for every item, and it is not so much the foreigners are being exploited, as the regulars who are here 12 months of the year get rewarded for their loyalty. In any case, the Glaros is the cheapest kafeneion in the whole of Kythnos, and for that matter all Kythnos cafes are cheaper than gleefully rip off Mykonos, Rhodes, Corfu and all the rest, where it is always 4 euros for a coffee, plus you get thoughtfully charged for sitting down (yes, the All New Laterally Expanded Buttock Levy)and for the waiter’s expensive smile, and for an idiosyncratic knife and fork ‘manual cum digital implementary tax’ and the notorious plate and washing up and running out of Squezy  ‘spherical crockery and citric cleanser surcharge’ while you’re at it.

That said, I have seen a few flagrant swindles here in the port in my time. Last year, three cafes down the way, a Belgian guy of maybe 45, of exemplary gentleness and friendliness, but with obviously nil Greek, ordered a meagre single Greek coffee, which ought to have been 1 and a half euros, 2 at the outside. The 40 year-old Greek waitress as opposed to a 20 year-old Albanian or Bulgarian counterpart, without a blush charged him 4 euros. You could guess that she was 2 euros short of 20 cigarettes, and suddenly saw a way of solving the problem painlessly. The Quaker-like Belgian smiled apologetically, as if to say you really ought to have ripped me off more you know, I am such a Walloonish dupe, paid up without complaint, and had likely just spent a week on Mykonos where they had rewarded his gentle manner by charging him 10 euros for a  bottle of water. 2 years back, I myself was impudently set to  be charged 4 euros, twice the going rate, for a cup of tea on a beach taverna near Loutra, even though I had ordered it in Greek. I lied and said I only had 2 euros and feigned walking away, and sure enough the local manageress, no Moldovan waitress skivvy, smirkingly consented that that was enough. In any case it isn’t just foreigners get skinned, though in these cases it is hard to work out where righteous indignation starts, and all-purpose paranoia takes over, and especially in these critical and nightmarish times for many Athenians. Only 3 months ago, a middle-aged woman from the capital, made herself extremely popular by going in every cafe in the port, and telling the whole world at the top of her voice, that Kythnos was full of thieves and rogues, and she had been stung and swindled at every turn, wherever she was fool enough to buy a coffee or  a lemonade, and she was  a bloody Greek up the same shit creek as they were, and dammit they didn’t give a bollocks as long as they wrenched every euro out of her. So much for the romance of the islands, she ranted, the true Greece, the home of eesikhia, of rustic serenity, and where everyone has hearts of gold as a result! She, for one, was never coming back to this bloody Mafia-run island, even if it was very handy for polluted, crazy Athens. And this of course, was pre credit control, meaning free of stringent ATM limits, when she was incandescently mouthing off, so God knows how bilious and apoplectic she’d have been in these present critical days.

There is also the matter of the genteel or possibly far too hypersensitive and truly counter-productive Kythnos temperament. Joanna up the way, also aged 50, has splendid cafe premises with a superb and massive balcony, and one of the finest views across the shimmering, sunlit bay. What’s more she has good English, as in her 20s she spent some time working in London and Brighton. But unlike Marianna she will not hustle, nor even politely approach groups of foreigners, declaring she thinks it beneath her, and is vulgar and embarrassing. So 10 French yachties will wander past, clearly starving for a massive breakfast, and Joanna is too proud to shout across, why don’t you come over here? in her flawless English accent. With a bit of luck doughty Marianna will bag them all outside the Glaros, then as like as not single-handed, will rustle up 10 omelettes and 10 fresh juices and 10 Cafe Gallikos. Joanna’s stony refusal to openly hustle, goes even further than that, and one is tempted to diagnose an actual resistance to enterprise and prosperity, or to put it in simple but incisive metaphor, she is all too prone to shoot herself in the foot, as a way of frustrating herself and staying always in the shadows, not to speak of in chronic debt. Seriously, what do you make of someone who has very good English, but has a menu chalked outside which is only in Greek? You cannot underestimate how much foreigners value the island cafes, where they offer the lingua franca of English, as barely 1 in a 100 tourists can be bothered to use a Greek phrasebook, much less memorise a few simple sentences.

Joanna doesn’t even have the excuse that she gets lots of Greek customers, whether Athens tourists or Kythniots,  so the bills meanwhile are piling up to the sky. Her sumptuous place is regularly spurned on 2 counts, by the most stubborn and reactionary of the locals. For one, they say, she encourages far too many bloody Albanians, all gabbling away in that weirdly squawky tongue of theirs, so that it should be called the bloody  Cafe Tirana. And for 2, and perhaps they have a point here, the place is crawling with far too many of Joanna’s bloody cats, some of whose feline backsides are allowed to rest upon the tables where you might decide to have your plate of mezzes with your evening ouzo.

HEART AND SOUL, OR NOTHING

HEART AND SOUL, OR NOTHING

A couple of weeks ago one of the souvlaki places near the Glaros, decided to belt out at full volume across the sunlit bay, the remarkable song Baby Jane (1983) by Rod Stewart (born 1945, now 70). If you don’t know who Rod Stewart is, you must be living on the moon, or maybe even Pluto, or maybe even one of Pluto’s moons, currently big in the BBC online news, as I’m sure you are aware. But suffice to say his charisma is such that one of the local Kythnos teachers who must be around 55, still sports a Rod Stewart fringe and flap haircut, from circa 1974, when Stewart was 29, the teacher would be around 14, and Fascism was just about to finish in Greece. Thus it is, that a  middle aged teacher on a very obscure Greek island, is still avidly paying homage to a British pop idol as he was 40 years ago, when no one these days back in the UK, apart from doubtless umpteen hideous tribute bands, is poncing around with a Rod Stewart coiffure. Isn’t that touching? However all I need to add to spoil the picture, is that the same teacher by way of casual Kythnos dress, often wears a violently red football top and flappy white shorts, the kind of thing a 12 year-old would run around in, and which Stewart, despite his famous soccer addiction, would not be seen dead wearing. Still, a fan is a fan is a fan, is an idol, no matter what. Apropos which, all too briefly, aged 17, back in 1968 at my Cumbrian Grammar School, aka The Brothel on the Hill, even though I had a girlfriend, because of my very long centre-parted hair, I had my own fan club of about five 14 year-old girls, who held their daily club meetings under a tree on the road into town. Laugh if you will, but I have never walked so tall in all my life, and perhaps never will. It beats inter alia the lure of winning the Booker Prize and even the Nobel Prize, including the ones in Medicine and Science as well as Literature.

You won’t believe it, but by a miracle Baby Jane is currently playing on Galaxy FM Greek radio just as I write this. It feels damn near mystical, as the souvlaki place had it ready-prepared on a CD or maybe an mp3 player or even on  i-bloody tunes, whatever the hell they might be, something to do with Bugs Bunny as far as I know. But to backtrack to my fan club year of 1968, when Rod Stewart was 23, he was then touring the States as singer and songwriter with Jeff Beck (born 1944), now recognised as a guitarist’s guitarist of towering world stature. In the late 70s, Beck played jazz alongside Czech keyboard ace Jan Hammer, and the genius bassist Stanley Clarke, but in the early 60s he cut his teeth, along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, in the Yardbirds. Stewart has since said that Beck was such an exacting taskmaster, his virtuoso standards being so impossibly high, that in all the 2 and a half years they worked together, he never once had the courage to look him in the eye. In June 1968, when it was Rod Stewart’s first ever US performance at the Fillmore, his stage fright was so bad, he actually hid behind the amplifiers completely invisible as he sang. He had to be dozed with brandy to get him out on stage, since when of course, as strutting peacock or maybe I mean prancing popinjay sex symbol (see his 1978 Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? ) he has never once looked back.

Anyone who knows me, as well as careful readers of these pages, will know that I am a focused jazz, world music, classical music and especially an opera fan. But in addition I’ve always paid homage to any vocalist, including Rod Stewart, who demonstrates concentrated emotional power or great poignance or authentic visceral passion, or whatever you might wish to call it. In this regard, it is instructive to compare Stewart’s cover version of the harrowing and truly haunting When I Need Love, with the Leo Sayer 1976 hit original. Sayer is a sweet and sincere guy, no doubt of that, but his singing is all done very much at a safe distance, and from the outside, and with the deepest feeling always at one remove. Stewart by contrast, inflects pure passion into the powerful lyrics and his sense of rhythm and cadence are absolutely flawless. He is what you might call a relaxed genius, and such people, despite the hype, are very rare, and I for one would not include Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin in their number, though just possibly Tony Bennett, yes. For the same reason, for over 40 years I have revered the music of Stevie Wonder, or at any rate all but the early Motown stuff. You only have to listen to that beautiful and truly mesmerising album with the terrible title Fulfillingness First Finale (1974) or Songs in the Key of Life (1976) to feel the sheer power of the man’s soul radiating like Rontgen x-rays through all the known and unknown cosmos. The fact that born in 1950, he has been blind from soon after birth, is both beside the point and infinitely relevant. He exudes the profoundest, ripest spirituality, and his admonitory gospel songs as in They Won’t Go When I Go, on FFF above, would definitely win more converts that any amount of dutiful church attendance might.

In the same league, and by way of a handy checklist (my birthday is 18th October, if you are interested) I relish the music of variously Kate Bush (aged 57), Rosie Gaines, Joni Mitchell (now 71, and with very serious health issues), and Judie Tzuke.  Tzuke’s best known hits, both in 1979, were Stay With me Till Dawn and Welcome to the Cruise. Born in 1956, she came of Polish parents, hence the unusual surname which replaced her adopted name of Myers. Her voice is like no one else’s, and curiously always sounds as if sung in an ice cold wind, whose bitterness is pierced by the sheer poignancy of her singing. Rosie Gaines’ date of birth is a state secret, and I personally aged 50 years trying to find it. She first made her name in 1990, as singer for Prince on his excellently titled The Nude Tour. If you haven’t heard her 1995 number Closer Than Close, you have not lived; intensely passionate, subtly erotic, beautifully paced, absolutely hypnotic. Recently she has been very ill with leg infections, and has had periods of homelessness, with friend Brenda Vaughn doing fundraising concerts on her behalf. These women singers all have one thing in common, though Bush and Mitchell are obviously in a different league when it comes to compositional virtuosity, agile jazz experimentation, plus the remarkable ability to use their voices in an enormously versatile and unpredictable and wholly original way. All these female vocalists put their hearts and souls totally and fearlessly into what they sing, and they are infinitely and vulnerably inside the emotions they are powerfully rendering in song.

If you would argue that e.g. a smooth and hygienic night club crooner like Robbie Williams (born 1974) or Diana Krall (born 1964) do the same thing, I would say you are 500% wrong. Real feeling cannot be assumed or faked, it is ineffable, inimitable, and has the dimensions of the animate soul. And thank God for that.

WANTING HER PURE GOLD

WANTING HER PURE GOLD

for Monica with love

This week I am waiting to see someone who I will not have seen for all of 110 days, by the time she arrives here in Greece on Sunday.  You will notice the specificity and the unusualness of that number, and ask yourself what else comes in units of 110, other than my days of romantic waiting.  5 cricket pitches when measured in yards, all of them end to end, no doubt? Personally I don’t care for cricket as a spectator sport, though I enjoyed playing it as a young kid. Still, I find it astonishing that great and subtle and fearless artists like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, should have been addicted to the soporific strawberry tea and public school game, though at least in the latter case there are plenty of ‘pauses’ in the leisurely diversion. Myself, I would far prefer to play tiddlywinks, which can also accommodate a great many Zen-like pauses, if you get yourself shipshape and play your cards right, to mix 2 delightful ‘ludic’ metaphors. But back to waiting to see someone, who is very special in my life. Compared with a 10 year prison sentence, or doing a stint away in the Merchant Navy, before one sees one’s loved one, 110 days isn’t exactly an aeon. It is 15 weeks, 5 days, or near enough 4 months. On the one hand 4 months sounds a comfortingly modest interval, but then if you reframe it as the hideously endless gap between August and Christmas, or Christmas and Easter, it brings you out in cold sweats. One of the processes therefore that both of us, both ardent arithmeticians, have ended up getting involved in, is playing with the numeral and trying to make it feel less by our elastic ingenuity. Regardless though of all our baroque manoeuvrings and recalibrations, it is  of course getting less day by day, and is now down to an incredible 5 days, which really is proximity writ large, as it is indubitably less than a week.

There are philosophical and spiritual adages to reflect on at times like this. Kong Qiu aka Confucius (551-479BC) said that ‘everything comes to him who waits’. The controversial American writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) wrote once that he had ‘trained himself not to want anything too badly’. It strikes me both of these maxims amount to the same thing, but from different appetitive ends of the spectrum. If you read Miller’s autobiographical novels, especially the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, he seemed to have a remarkable capacity to satisfy all his bodily and indeed his spiritual needs, just as and when and how, he wanted them. If he felt a sexual urge, he effortlessly found a willing woman whether in Paris or New York, and he slept with her. If he needed spiritual sustenance, he fished out a tome by Spengler or Schopenhauer or the French essayist Elie Faure (1873-1937), also much admired by Havelock Ellis, and that would immediately do the trick. Miller boasted that he had never had a headache in his life, and his highly original cure for depression, so called, was to take a nap. In passing  and you might find this a valuable specific, next time you are tempted to reach for the Prozac, my eminent North Cumbrian friend, the folk musician Maddy Prior, conquers the same affliction by making  herself a fresh pot of tea. She swears it is an infallible remedy.

You can imagine that Confucius would be more like Maddy Prior, and very little like Henry Miller, and the last thing on earth he would have done would have been to satisfy his carnal appetites, as if this was his last day on earth. Another thing Kong Qiu wrote, later quoted by Bulwer-Lytton was ‘Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is active, it is concentrated strength.’ One thing needs to be made plain, though. Just because someone makes the right noises of acclamation and quotes the right quotes, doesn’t mean to say they themselves are a model of sagacious virtue, nor that they adhere to the maxims they revere. The author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) for example, in 1858 responded to his Irish wife Rosina’s embarrassingly public accusations of adultery, by having her incarcerated in a mental asylum, before an angry public outcry to led to her release. But for myself, I would go further even than Confucius, and affirm the cliché that Patience really is a Virtue. Then I would modify that, to specify it is a Spiritual Virtue, and more importantly, it is a Spiritual Mystery. I would put it in the same company as Faith, which is also an unfathomable and very beautiful Mystery. That removes the status of Patience from being something tedious, and drearily associated with the numerous half-dead and half-alive folk we often meet, who want nothing fearless and nothing new, because they do not have the imagination to want anything really fearless and really new…to the dimensions of the Supernatural, or shall we risk all, and say of the Divine?

NOT SO FRIGHTENED OF DYING

NOT SO FRIGHTENED OF DYING

I suppose you ought to get used to something you see every day, but I am always amazed by the sheer brio and panache, as opposed to any shambling guilt, with which everyone on Kythnos lights up and puffs away at their cigarettes, usually as part of their cheerfully suicidal chain-smoking lifestyle. You wouldn’t think  they were practising anything lethal, or even moderately harmful, and they whip out their fags/cigarettes with the suavity of those old 50s UK movies, you know the kind, where everyone, unlike the rest of us, has a comprehensive drinks cabinet at home, and every time they enter the posh sitting room full of Picasso prints, the first thing they do is help themselves to a Scotch and Soda, and then hand their partner a  Gin and Tonic as a rule. They are always entering their sitting room, so they are always knocking back the S and S, and the G and T, then blithely stepping into their splendid Daimler saloon downstairs in the London SWI block of flats, and driving away with a skinful, in those sunny, palmy days before the breathalyser and the blood sample and the urine sample. In today’s prices the quantity of booze in their cabinet must have been worth about £300 or 400 euros, and as it was always being refilled, it was a costly little item of upkeep. The same now applies to cigarettes, which once upon a time were dirt cheap everywhere, but now even in Greece will set you back 5 euros a pack of 20. That is also the hourly rate for almost all waitering and waitressing jobs on Kythnos, so if you are run off your feet as a skivvy, you need to graft a full hour to pay for your snouts (North East English usage; see also ‘tabs’). As plenty of Greeks smoke 40 a day, that works out 70 euros a week or 300 a month ( = a live in Bulgarian or Moldovan waitress’s wage on Kythnos), or 3600 a year, and we are talking real money now, especially as in July 2015 a Greek can only access 60E a day from an ATM and half the time the bloody things are completely empty.

In terms of setting  a good example, 2 out of the three 3 Kythnos doctors are heavy smokers who puff away happily in public and the only nurse on the island ditto. 2 of these medical professionals make roll ups conveyor-belt style, and as they have small children, presumably they are keen to economise rather than fritter money away on mirages of smoke. As health professionals they should, but clearly don’t reflect, that as smokers they might not be around to see those kids grow up, and this includes one in her early 40s, who has a persistent cough, as does her chain-smoking husband who is a waiter in one of the port bars. He tells me that when he takes a break and has a Greek coffee, he always smokes 5 roll ups, and I have watched him doing his factory work of continuous cigarette assembly, which of course always evaporates into the ether and never accumulates to anything enduring, as it were. Meanwhile one of the doctors, an elderly  Rumanian, as I have already noted, likes to stand under the ‘No Smoking’ sign in the Health Centre, and puff his excellent smoke rings regardless, as if there is no tomorrow. Given that he must be in his late 60s, and knew what it was like to under the lunatic Ceausescu, the same who literally attempted to abolish by bulldozer the Rumanian countryside, so as to obliterate conservative rustic attitudes, presumably the old medic from Brasov, thinks he has had a good stint of it, and snuffing it tomorrow wouldn’t put him out one iota.

I have saved the statistics to this point, as if I had started with them, you would probably have found something urgent to watch on the telly, such as the health adverts. But I was genuinely astonished in the light of what I have written above, to learn that the total number of world smokers has increased considerably over the last 30 years. In 1980 it was 721 million, and in 2012 was 967 million, or a 33% rise. All that universal promotion of the frightening facts, all those grisly and sometimes puke-evoking pictures on the cigarette packets, all those price hikes, even in the smokers’ paradise aka the Third World,  and yet the whole of the universe is puffing away at 4/3 of what it once was. Meanwhile in 2010 and it is probably true now, the biggest smokers in Europe were the Greeks, at 42% of the population. Next Bulgarians at 39%, the Latvians at 37%, and near the bottom of the league table, those play safe dullards the Swedes only had 25% of their citizens puffing away. More surprisingly Slovakia had the very lowest figures at 22%. Bemused, I ask myself what is so relaxing and/or mature about the Slovakian experience, that less than a quarter of them use the old gaspers? I thought Slovakia was supposed to be the poor and primitive and reactionary and Catholic cousin of the adjacent and progressive Czech Republic. Maybe they are so poverty stricken they can’t even afford roll ups, but I doubt that also. Back in 1973, in India, you could of course buy proper packet fags like anywhere else, but if you were an impoverished Indian, or if you were me (I smoked off and on till I was 23) you would buy a whole pack of shiv biris, or rolled tobacco leaves, for 1 rupee, which was then about 3 and a half UK pence.

In 2012, Greece also had the biggest percentage of female smokers in Europe, at 35%. In Kythnos I would pessimistically hazard it is more like 70%, and for males 95%, but possibly I am too close to my subject matter, and I don’t take account of e.g. the barely visible old folk and rural folk, who rarely leave their farms and smallholdings. I rack my brains now to think of all the women friends I have outside of Greece, and the only one I can think of who smokes, is in Malaysia, and I would say she chain-smokes, though she would say she does not, as she myopically computes the quantity at about a third of what it is. Things are completely the inverse here in Kythnos, compared with my last address, which was rural NE Cumbria, UK. Just as in Cumbria, I noted any conspicuous middle class educated woman who smoked, and observed that there were precisely none, I now notice the educated professional women on Kythnos who don’t smoke, as they are such a striking rarity. Clever Greek women with degrees in Italian or Economics or English, teachers, and accountants and travel agents and insurance specialists, and they all blast away regardless and completely unembarrassed. The age of them can be particularly mortifying, and at times I feel like wrenching the cigarettes out of the hands of some of these babes in arms. In January 2014 I was at a panagiri festival at the beautiful Stratolatissa chapel beyond Dryopida. The festival room was full to the gills, and at long trestle tables we tucked into copious free food and free ntopio krassi/local wine. I happened to be sat opposite 4 very nice young women teachers from the port, friends of mine as they had all been to my dinner parties at various times. They were aged between 25 and 30, but all of them looked about 10 years old to me, partly because I am 64, and therefore old enough to be their Dad. Unremarkably, if you know your Greece, all 4 of them were called Maria. 3 of those 4 Marias all smoked, and they all smoked between courses and all chain-smoked. I suspect the Maria who didn’t smoke, did not do so, as she was engaged to a leading Greek football player who plays internationally, and as far as I know even the most reckless Greek soccer players don’t smoke fags, nor do their girlfriends and fiancees.

But have you ever sat opposite three beautiful young women, who all look 10 years old, and watch them all act like jaunty idiots and chain-smoke all those carcinogens and tars down their handsome if heedless necks? It was all too much, and at times I simply had to look the other way.

THE WORST TEACHERS IN THE WORLD

THE WORST TEACHERS IN THE WORLD

Nearly 40 years ago, between 1976-1978, I had a lecturing job in a Cumbrian Technical College, teaching what was variously known as Liberal Studies and General Studies. The students were all working in industry, and they had a day release structure, meaning for one day a week, they went to the college to study appropriate technical subjects (car maintenance, nuclear instrument calibration, footwear technology etc) and then receive their ‘liberal’ input from the likes of me. In that 1970s period, I was teaching a huge range of students; from boot and shoe operatives of both sexes, to girls working in catering, all aged around 16 or 17, and also exclusively men in their 20s and 30s, studying the old Higher National Diploma in subjects like Physics and Engineering. Somewhere in the middle of that, I lectured to a lot of young BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) instrument mechanics, who were both invigorating and at times utterly appalling in their outright and quite redundant racism (not least because there were no black people or immigrants of any kind, to be so righteously indignant about, in West Cumbria, 40 years ago). The same teaching job as I experienced it later in the mid 1980s, had a very definite insistence on imparting confidence-building practical skills: things like getting them to give a talk on how to plan a weekend’s camping, or how to cook a 3 course meal, or how to collaborate to make a short video camera film. But the earlier teaching, although it had a notional syllabus and a notional Aims and Objectives, which was actually based on a pretentious and preposterous Linnaean biology model (A Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) was completely laissez faire. In fact it was so laissez faire, it was a bit like my recently described chewing gum machine gone mad fantasy, where its entire contents poured out after only one coin was inserted. Teaching General Studies in the late 1970s, was, if you were an idle bastard and a deviously elusive merchant of a college lecturer, just too good to be true.

The educational objectives when it came to Liberal Studies, were to take these students, whose technical subjects and sometimes stern work discipline, might make them narrow and unthinking and possibly retrograde and conservative, and infuse some touchingly nascent gentleness of liberal opinion into them. At the far end of the idealistic scale, you were meant ‘to encourage a tolerance of the diversity of the different means of artistic expression’ meaning introduce them to very high culture as well as debatably lower culture. So you might, if you felt suicidal, read James Joyce to them (ideally not Finnegans Wake) and right after play some Dvorak String Quartets, as well as comprehensively  comparing and contrasting late 70s punk poetry, and the lyrics of Ian Dury, and local brass band music, and Easy Listening a la James Last or Klaus Wunderlich. Likewise there were audio-visual slide shows of The History of Art available in the college, and once I made the grave mistake of showing some Sellafield instrument mechanics the lurid and disturbing works of the 20th century Surrealists. The whole scene is described at length in my novel Radio Activity (1993) and includes the AV booklet’s suggestion, that I should induct the students into Practical Surrealism, pace Dali, Ernst, Magritte etc, in real time (that last expression wasn’t used in 1977 and it was a better world as a result). What they meant was that after the slide show, I had to give them an elaborate paper-folding, origami style exercise, of such complexity and endlessness, they were all massively intrigued, if totally baffled by what it was about. Then just as they were well advanced with it, and sweating not a little from all that industrious craft, I was advised to walk round and screw up all their efforts, and fling them leeringly into the waste paper bin! It was meant to be Zen satori, Rene Magritte-style, a paradoxical outcome writ large, but some of the instrument mechanics definitely wanted to murder me as  a result, and at least one 16 year-old lad burst into tears as the sweet little paper object he had made was already very dear to his heart.

It was entirely up to me how I taught General Studies in the 1970s, and aside from the attendance and the marks I gave them, no one ever queried what or how I was attempting those wondrously taxonomic aims and objectives. I was a part timer, but ultimately I was a part timer doing a lot of teaching, and thus effectively I was a full timer. Full time Liberal Studies lecturers were obliged to do some sort of further training at a nearby university, even though once they had done it, they could keep on teaching whatever they wanted, and as ineptly and idly as they liked, so long as they filled in the registers, and dished out a few marks for the register records. In accordance with this charming and fairytale laxity, the interviews for the part timers were so perfunctory, they were simply not interviews, and you had been given the job before you walked through the door. I was asked by a jovial bloke called Des Bix in a tie and a sports jacket, whose principal passion in life apart from the busty, seductive and provocative middle years college librarian, proved to be Algorithms, no more than when I could start and how many hours could I take on. Bix was Head of Liberal Studies, but he didn’t describe the job at all, not even in two minutes discussion. I was not required to provide references, and Des and his department accepted that I had a degree as the only necessity for my part time teaching, but they never checked whether I actually had a degree. These days the possession or faking of a degree, could probably be established by 5 minutes of googling and emailing a university admin department, but then only an actual degree certificate or umpteen phone calls and letters, would have proved things either way. After that, the only attention you got was if you didn’t fill in that sacred item, the register, or if you did something grave and worthy of censure, and even that was rarely fatal in terms of your invulnerable sinecure.

In the meantime, some of the full timers on relatively large salaries were getting away with murder. There was a video room at one of the 2 sister colleges where I taught, and a booking register that was kept in Reception. One of the very amiable and elderly Liberal Studies chaps was called Benny Stitt, and he rode to work on a 1950s motorbike, and wore an antiquated skid-lid that the kids always laughed at. And guess what, every single week of all 3 terms, there were Benny’s inimitable initials, and good old BS had booked the video room for at least 20 hours. Meaning Benny Stitt did nothing but watch telly for 2/3 of his whopping salary. Some of the bookings were Open University programmes on Cosmic Creation and Molecular Physics, and given the only real passion in Benny’s life was competitive ballroom dancing with his wife of 30 years, called most appositely Bunny Stitt, he doubtless slept through most of his teaching. Other full time tenured lecturers had fanatical hobby horses. One of them, a lantern-jawed and steely gent of about 50, with very much the look of a sullen chimpanzee, also ran a profitable dairy farm 10 miles off. He could only do this because he did no preparation whatever for his job, but principally showed his many students slide shows on his pet obsession, namely 1970s Maoist agriculture. He was as you can imagine, far from being a Maoist communist, but I think he most definitely loved and even revered, the Cultural Revolution’s slavery cum beehive side, and would have definitely liked to have organised his undisciplined college students to work for nil wages on his dairy farm.

However he wasn’t in the same league as the very worst of the part timers.Sometimes they got so desperate at the colleges, they took on retired schoolteachers in their late 60s, including retired junior schoolteachers, some of whose notions of modernity, sexual politics, societal theory, everything that matters, given they were all born around 1910, stopped somewhere close to 1934.  One ex-junior school head, a craggy, beefy man of 68, aptly called Nobbs and who had actually taught me 15 years earlier, when I was 11, had 2 very singular hobby horses. One was everything to do with standing committees and quorums. Nobbs would give 10-part dictated lectures (write this all down, please) on how to organise a committee and a sub-committee, and a focus committee and a running committee and a walking committee, and a dormant committee and a temporary committee, and the sundry riveting applications in the dramatic West Cumbrian Parish Council milieu (dog fouling anybody, street lighting anybody?) of which he was a seasoned representative. You can imagine how pig sick the HND guys in their late 20s and early 30s were, as they informed you that Nobbs was the last of their day release lecturers, from 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Quorum procedural etiquette at 8.15 in drizzling midweek November 1977, when your eyes were drooping like fishing lead sinkers, and you were all but brain damaged from a full day of soporific lectures and physics practicals?

Nobbs’s other obsession, was, believe it or not, all things to do with the subject of… bread. Back in 1977 when there were no such things as electric bread makers and certainly not in Neanderthal West Cumbria, Nobbs made his own crusty bread back home for himself and his doting old wife, who was also a retired teacher. So, when he’d run out of charismatic facts on sub committees and standing committees, Nobbs would tell his students over and over about the joys, and not forgetting the excruciating pitfalls, when it comes to making your own staff of life.