NOT IN AUGUST

NOT IN AUGUST

I said in my very first piece for these pages that the Cycladean Isle of Kythnos is for most purposes, those aesthetic, and even those supremely mundane and practical, a paradise on earth. Partly that was because I arrived to live here full  time in September 2013, meaning I had missed the month of August and its attendant hells. I should have known better. The only nice Augusts I had ever known since my first visit to Greece in 1972, were in Samothraki in 1982 and Naxos in 2004. The former island was then so rarely visited and hard to get to (you had to go via Alexandropouli which is almost at the Turkish border in Thrace) that August there was like sluggish May or October anywhere else. Naxos in high season should also have been a madhouse, as it was 2 years later, when it took me about 8 scorching and exhausting hours to find rooms for 4 of us in the Hora. But 2004 was Olympics year and tourist numbers were drastically down, and we got 2 rooms for Annie, Ione and me at the risibly low rates of 25 and 20 euros.

This year was my second high season on Kythnos and most perplexingly, last August did not seem anywhere near as bad when it came to claustrophobic tourist congestion, gridlocked port roads, crowded beaches and the business of waiting ages for a return taxi, unless you had wisely pre-booked it. Given  that this summer Greece was supposed to be in the worst crisis ever, with stringent daily cash limits from ATMs, I am still comprehensively baffled by the memory of all these Athenians heedlessly and expensively whooping it up, as if this were a variation on Benidorm or Acapulco. How the hell did they pay for their rooms and stump up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and put petrol in their cars, and go on sea taxi excursions to Kolona, the double sand spit plastered on every Kythnos postcard, on a paltry 60 euros a day? Ask any Kythniot in the tourist trade and they just express an all-purpose blandness that explains nothing. Oh they self-cater, they borrow houses from relatives and friends, they only drink coffee in the tavernas, and don’t order meals. Some, a  few, yes, but dozens of others no: they were there in droves on every beach on the island, regularly shovelling down vast restaurant meals, and staying in commercial domatia at full August whack, and driving whopping great 4-wheel drives down potholed roads to ruin the matchless eesikhia of customarily empty beaches. This crisis August was glumly prophesied to be a non-season, but anecdotally was busier than last year, and yet causality and rational explanations are about 117th on the tally of any Greek preference list, rather as they are in the furthest reaches of Hindu India. Hence the cafe and domatia owners just shrug their indifferent shoulders, and despite this year’s luck, wait pessimistically for next August, which is of course when they make about 70% of their annual income.

My London girlfriend Monica was here for the first half of the month as well as the last week of July. We had a truly blissful 3 weeks together, marred only in my case by the presence of any other souls not called Monica, on my favourite remotest beaches. These at root I sincerely believe, even if only symbolically, to be my private kingdoms, fiefdoms, demesnes and exclusive paradises. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind a few other souls on the beach beside me, if they were quiet and reverently enjoyed the exquisite paradise around them. Instead in August they play noisy clack-clack beach tennis, whose balls are always coming close to hitting you the bystander across the chops, plus countless grown men and women cannot resist shouting and uproariously hallooing in the water like overgrown kiddiwinks. When not doing that they collogue at full volume with their garrulous beach neighbours, whilst simultaneously chainsmoking and chucking the burning fag stumps down on the sand adjacent, so that ultimately there would enough there to recycle and start a splendid new cigarette factory up on the headland. Charming eh? Reclining on the beach, most Greeks address their interlocutors as if they were 5 miles rather than 2 feet away. If they are male the term malaka/ wanker occurs every 4th word in  the conversation, both in an amiable and a hostile context,  and if they are female they are always bantering, ella re, hey, old pal, old mate, old chum! every alternate sentence. It really isn’t that I want them to regale my ears with pithy reflections on Proust and Thucydides, but surely if they just want to babble affably about nothing at full volume, they should be on Mykonos or Corfu, not unspoilt Kythnos. After all and to play them at their own game, it is only the Greeks who fetishise eesikhia or ineffable rustic quietude, and devote their lives to scrimping and saving so they can buy an island plot and build a lonely house and live in pristine monastic isolation. That being so, why in the interim, whether in the street or on an idyllic island beach, do they never stop chuntering and bawling, and as if trying to compete with a dozen pneumatic drills every time they decide to chew the fat with their best buddies?

As well as an excellent weekend spent on the Isle of Syros, Monica and I had 3 long weeks to visit every  Kythnos beach worth visiting, by those in the connoisseurial know. Broadly these divide into those with tavernas and decent asphalt roads, and those with no tavernas and atrocious xoma dirt tracks. Outside of August, as in the First Day of Creation, the latter would normally have had no one there, and I was truly stunned to see my very favourite bay of Gaidharomandra, as enormous and pristine as the land of forgotten but addictive dreams, with a dozen parked cars, and at least 50 Athenians partying and hooting and battering away at beach tennis. Can you conceive the Divine Plan settling for beach tennis as the best way of celebrating the First Day of Creation, and the towering  sense of muted anticlimax? Ditto for Agios Sostis, the remote gem of the far north, normally empty and now with several dozen mostly youthful couples with multiple tattoos and permanent cigarettes jauntily glued to their lips. Lots of impassioned snogging in the Aegean, which at least in spiritual possibilities is one up on clack clack tennis. Some of these kids even smoke in the sea, and text their Athens pals in the briny, and other ingenious young bastards play hilarious beach tennis in the slapping water. Monica finds it very comical that I consider 50 people on a gigantic bay a claustrophobic crowd, and even more so on blessed Zogaki where there are only 20, albeit one is a young woman of about 24, po-facedly doing press-ups and lifts and jogging. To be doing bloody fitness exercises on transcendent and matchless Zogaki beach, I argue, is the equivalent of reading a tender kaleidoscopic genius like Ivan Turgenev and simultaneously playing a saccharine Easy Listening CD by US crooner Barry Manilow (I Made It Through The Rain, Thanks to My Ingenious Brain)  whilst perusing the Russian’s hallowed pages.

Talking of which, over those 3 weeks on the beach, Monica energetically worked her way through some of the best in world literature, including two outstanding contemporary Greeks, Vangelis Xatziyannidis and Panos Karnezis. She is the only person I know other than myself, who has devoured Jean Giono’s autobiographical and incomparable Blue Boy in 3 or 4 sittings, and exulted in every perfect word, line, page. Needless to say that signifies a new and special bond, as the mystery of 2 people appreciating a very rare and uncategorisable jewel, is bound to make it so. She also read Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite Welsh Borderlands novel On The Black Hill (1982) which inexplicably the late Karl Miller, normally a byword for fairness and probity, damned in the pages of the august journal he then edited, the London Review of Books. I rarely read on the beach and idly got round to a few stories by Colette, before succumbing to the hardworking nay exhausting business of closing my eyes and giving myself up to ineffably profound and infinitely scrupulous authorial meditations. Monica claimed that I made sounds of rhythmic animal snoring, but that was in fact the singular vibration emitted when those profundities were at their very acutest. The energy had to go somewhere, and fittingly enough it came out rather like the sound of a fertile and ingeniously fertilising bee.

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SHOCKS AND SURPRISES

SHOCKS AND SURPRISES

I was delighted to learn recently that my daughter Ione, who lives in Leeds, might visit Kythnos as soon as next weekend. Luckily ferries abound here in high season, whereas the last time she came in early June, the timetables were in transition, meaning unbelievably virtuoso useless, and she spent all of 3 days in Kythnos and 4 days in laborious transit, hanging round sweltering Athens, consoling herself as I would have with Monastiraki Indian restaurants, a culinary option which is needless to say a bit thin on the ground in solidly Hellenic Kythnos. A visit from her before Christmas has long been on the cards, with or without old university pals, depending on their financial circumstances, work commitments etc. meaning her decision was likely to be a last minute one as now. And yes, I might be an old bastard of 64, but I can still remember what it’s like to be mid 20s, and always doing things on the hop, and I am also proud to confess I have been effortlessly doing much the same ever since. This is not particularly revolutionary anti-ageist fervour on my part, nor because I have copiously  imbibed of The Elixir of Life and stayed permanently young, but is rooted in the fact that the persona I had at 25 has basically never changed one iota. I feel 25 inside, or on a good day even 17, and always will, even though walking past the mirror I see and incredulously shudder at this hideous white-haired apparition who on a bad day would seem to be like one of the legendary Old Testament patriarchs who lived well into his multiple hundreds.

I like surprises on the whole, as opposed to shocks, which you might argue are very close if not identical items. On the whole surprises are good, and shocks are bad, though they both come to you unheralded, unadvertised, and with nil prior action plan nor logistical template. Also when it comes to confronting them, there is the matter of your subjective sturdiness or you might argue your plus or minus stiff upper lip. A monocled retired colonel from Esher might say either, I was shocked to learn my oldest boy Dickie is an appallingly  promiscuous homosexual, or more likely, I was I admit rather surprised to learn ditto, and the inner volcano of shame and perturbation will remain firmly bottled up to the end of his monocled days. As for me, ignoring every horrible shock I have ever known in my life, I will say that the best surprise I ever had in my life, was on a day when I had earlier done something stupid, and after a fashion roundly fucked things up. It was my 50th birthday on October 18th, 2000, and I was throwing  a huge party in our lovely North Cumbrian farmhouse. I had also thrown an even huger party for my 47th in 1997, this time in a nearby hotel where they provided gourmet vegetarian food, and I could just sit back and relax and let it all hang most indecorously loose, which I’m pleased to say I very much did. People then asked me why I went mad for my 47th , and indeed wondered if I was actually 50, and I said no, no,  it is because 47 is a prime number, and I am in my prime, and am celebrating the fact. Three years later, not out of stinginess nor economy, but just because I was in the  mood to cook, I made colossal quantities of Middle Eastern vegetarian food for my birthday party, and even hired a friend who was a jazz saxophonist to come and play something we might dance to. Joe arrived with his sax and his Yamaha gizmos to provide a funky backing, and all was going very well indeed, until I took the foolish advice of I can’t remember which bastard it was, and served all the food I had made cold. Cold in fucking October in fucking rural North Cumbria, do you get it, as if this was boiling mainland Greece circa August 1982 where everything was served stone cold or tepid at best, as they simply couldn’t be arsed to warm it up, and waste bloody old electricity. It was one of those baffling organisational  things…I had made so much food, I couldn’t get it all in our cooker to warm it up, and even our next door neighbour with his vintage Aga of the many doors and mysteries, could not take all the sumptuous overspill. Some brainless wiseacre observing all this, said sagely, oh bugger it, serve it cold, JM, it’s obviously so delicious no one will mind. All I can recall is that my advisor was no Bohemian, but someone faintly respectable and old-fashioned, not the kind to give you malicious or idiotic counsel when it came to highly discriminating Cumbrio-ethnic catering. So right enough, I served it cold and people piled their plates and ate it, and I could see that apropos the title of this piece, they were more than a little surprised by what they experienced. They had stuffed cooked exotic Middle Eastern food into their gobs, and were expecting it to be deliciously warm, and instead it was mystifyingly cold, all the aubergine dolmas, Bahreini pilafis, Israeli cucumber toureto, broadbean besara  and 20 other obscure dishes, most of them culled from the recipes of the late and immortal, he whose like will never be seen again, Armenian genius, Arto der Harotounian. They were much surprised to note the absence of any  warmth in this gourmet spread, and in fairness to them they might even have been shocked. Too late now, fuck it, I sighed. They all ate a fair quantity, though to my mind, far slower than usual, and all of them told me it was incredibly delicious, but I knew I had definitely ballsed things up by taking bad advice from someone I now observed was consuming a good deal less than everyone else. Annie arrived at the do an hour late, because she had been working away in South Scotland, and I told her my quandary but she said briskly don’t worry JM, balls, bollicks, forget it, the food is so good, who gives a shit, Happy 50th, birthday boy, and proceeded to heap her own plate very high by way of wifely reassurance.

Once the party was over, and everyone had departed, she told me she had a bit of a surprise for me. It was precisely 16 years earlier on my 34th birthday she had given me another surprise, when she had invited a colossal number of friends to a party I knew absolutely nothing about, and which she and they had kept secret for weeks. They appeared out of the woodwork like sprites and elves and it was all as in a childhood dream. In this case it was an envelope she handed me, which for some reason I expected to have either a book token or a CD token for a huge amount of money (those massive boxed sets of Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis and Telemann, here we come). But instead it contained two lots of air tickets. The tickets were for Prestwick-Dublin, Dublin-Prestwick, and the departure tickets were for tomorrow the 19th of October 2000. She had gone and bought us a bargain break in good old, bloody old Dublin, which despite its Celtic Tiger transformation and transmogrification, Temple Bar (an exiled Dubliner pal of mine once derisively referred to it as ‘Micks On the Make’) and all the rest, is God’s own capital, and, when it comes to disporting oneself, wonderfully exciting beyond belief.

That’s what I call a surprise. That’s what I call a wife.

50 YEARS IS NOTHING

50 YEARS IS NOTHING

For the last few days I have felt worn out and have had a sore throat and a severely stuffed nose. I could claim I have a kind of virus, and I know there is a very pernicious one knocking about the Kythnos port, as two folk who work in the same excellent taverna past the bridge, have recently both had atrocious colds, or do I mean chills (come to think of it, what the hell is a chill and does it even exist other than as an inaccurate folk term for a fictive malady?). The pretty waitress Katarina in her mid 20s, who hails from  one of the most boring agricultural towns in mainland Greece, was walking to the pharmacy the other day looking very much the worse for wear. I suggested she take the day off, but she shrugged as if to say I might as well have suggested she try levitation or mind reading as her next hobby. Greeks who are employed have to be truly dead on their feet before they stop working. In particular an inordinate number of women waitresses have chronic back problems, as there is so much stooping and lifting and carrying very heavy trays and generally standing about, and little in the way of sitting for longer than 10 minutes at a time, and especially in madhouse August. Only recently Chrisoula in the Glaros, and Kostas the taxi man who drinks his coffees there, were both wearing surgical supports or perhaps I mean surgical corsets for their simultaneous bad backs. They both raised their shirts to show me their splendid corsets, as I sat working at my blog and I admit I was moderately hysterical at the sight, though not at all indifferent to their backache. Backache is one of those invisible afflictions which everyone sympathises with for 5 seconds, then promptly forgets in the flux and welter of their own personal concerns, much to the chagrin of the poor tormented bugger whose every single micro-movement can be an exercise in modulated self-torture for the next 24, 72, 168 or more wretched hours…

I don’t think I really have a virus or I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this piece about illness in the Paradisos cafe. Instead I think I have all purpose petit mal or kinaesthetic prostration (my own term before you start to vainly google it) or some sort of hypochondriacal  fatigue, compounded of excessive August heat, too much writing, too much recent teaching, too much consumption of rich ladhera vegetarian food (okra, gigantes, fava, fasolakia), and just a leetle dehydration courtesy of lying on Martinakia beach most afternoons.  It might seem hard to believe but the last time I had flu was nearly 30 years ago in 1986. Most people I know have flu about once every 3 or 4 years so it looks as if the grippe is downright scared of me. I can even remember that I had root canal treatment at the dentist while I had the flu, and hopefully asked the young long-haired fang-wrencher if the work should perhaps be postponed while I had this serious virus. He laughed sardonically and then started buggering away ingeniously at my molars with his very fine drill. He was a virtuoso no doubt of that, but also very arrogant and even outstandingly immature as he was showing off for his  young  and pretty female assistant and looking at her instead of at me, while he did his very subtle surgery. Despite his youth he actually owned the practice, and amazingly he possessed a private helicopter, and he was talking about flying her down to watch a rugby game in London soon. She smirked and grinned, and I could see her engagement ring but I thought aha she is turning it over in her head, a helicopter ride to Twickers and a Mayfair hotel, it might be worth the gamble, or even if not, it is such fun to excite this babbling show-off to such an unbelievable extent. Incredible as it seems, he finally extracted the tiny tooth nerve brilliantly without looking at either it or me, but only at sumptuous Karen as she was called. As I left, he was still trying to entice her with promises of tickets to the London theatre, and you could tell of his savoir faire when it came to current metropolitan drama as it was Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap he was suggesting to her. If he ever managed to get her there I could visualise him talking the whole way through the play about their next assignation in Aviemore for skiing, and about luxury Highland lodges replete with rare malts, smoked salmon, state of the art saunas, and oh so much hypnotising and erotic steam.

It was 20 years earlier I had suffered any previous serious ailment, bad enough for me to take time off my Cumbrian school. Incredibly I had a bad dose of hepatitis in 1966, which is something you were only supposed to get as an itinerant hippy in Nepal or India in those days. I felt very nauseous for a few days, and indeed did vomit a fair bit, and also became jaundiced. Ultimately it was suggested it was lack of basic hygiene in the boys’ toilets of my otherwise hygienic and genteel grammar school, aka The Brothel on the Hill. I came down with it  around my 16th birthday which was 18th October, and only 3 days later I was sat downstairs biliously watching TV on my own, when I saw something guaranteed to make the whole world feel bilious. Early in the morning of the 21st October 1966, a huge coal tip above the village of Aberfan near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, because of a build up of water caused by underground springs, started to slide down and rapidly engulfed the junior school as well as destroying a farm and 20 terraced houses. 116 schoolchildren aged 7-10 were either suffocated, or killed on impact, and 28 adults also died. The ironies at the time were harrowing. Had the disaster been a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classroom and many would have survived. Had it happened a few hours later, they would have broken up for half term. As you would expect, terrified parents arrived and began to dig frantically with their bare hands, while teeming crowds of well meaning locals keen to assist prevented the access of trained rescue teams. The makeshift mortuary of Bethania Chapel was so small parents could only enter one at a time, and one mother recalled seeing almost every dead girl in the village before eventually she saw her own daughter. At least half of the survivors went on to suffer post traumatic stress disorder, and some children who had survived, felt so guilty that they would not go out to play and upset the parents who had been bereaved. Lord Robens, chief of the National Coal Board behaved with exemplary callousness, claiming nothing could have foretold the disaster, when the villagers had long known about the subterranean springs, and local authorities in 1963 had raised serious concerns about the tip being sited directly above a junior school.

Robens didn’t even turn up until the day after the tragedy, considering it more important to go and be invested as Chancellor of the University of Surrey on the 21st. Incredibly, panicking NCB executives covered up and lied that he had been busy directing rescue operations when he wasn’t even there. At the Tribunal of Enquiry his evidence was so unsatisfactory that counsel for the NCB asked for it to be ignored. Harold Wilson, PM of the time, subsequently refused to accept his belated resignation.

COUNTLESS KISSES

COUNTLESS KISSES

My girlfriend Monica and I were recently in North Syros, in an exquisitely furnished taverna that wouldn’t have been out of place in central Athens, when we observed something most unusual. The Isle of Syros is the hub of the Cyclades, its Hora of Ermopouli a city in its own right, and the administrative capital of the island group. Not so long ago remote North Syros was all terrible potholed roads, and was well nigh inaccessible without a 4-wheel drive or pick-up. There was then no beautifully arrayed taverna run by 2 go-ahead guys in their early 30s, both with very good English, much less reserved tables for Ermopouli day-trippers wanting Sunday lunch. We were reflecting on the anomaly of a place going from an unvisited backwater to a recreational hotspot, all thanks to the do or die innovation of asphalted roads, when we noticed the singular group next to our table. There was a groovy looking Dad about 50 who might well have passed for an Athens actor or painter, with his pony tail and cavernous features, his wife with hennaed hair who had her back to us, another couple who might have been their best friends, and 2 kids. The boy of about 12 was facing us and like every other 12 year-old kid from Syros to Samarkand, was playing very earnestly with his i-phone. The handsome girl of 10 was sat adjacent to the Mum with her arm wrapped round her, which was unremarkable enough,  but what struck Monica and myself as extraordinary, was that she could not stop kissing her Mum, and by that I do not mean 2 minutes worth of gentle girlish kisses. She kissed her mother’s cheek tenderly and protractedly and passionately, and kept on doing so without stint for the whole time we were there, viz. about 2 hours.

None of the  others paid any attention to this, and the Mum was obviously happy enough to receive this touching daughterly love, about every 10 kisses turning and giving her a loving affirmatory peck, certainly nothing as impassioned and obsessive as the child’s caresses. The best way of describing it was that the repetitive kissing by the girl indicated some of sort of profound emotional necessity, or even that it represented a mild kind of life support. She loved her Mum so much, and needed to nurture herself with the closest contact to such an extent, she reminded me very much of my 3 young male cats who spend ages adoringly grooming, petting and mothering each other, though in their case they often arbitrarily change sentimental tack and give each other a massive bite in the neck. The pair of us gazed fascinated at this unprecedented kissing fest. Both of us once had daughters her age, but neither of us could have imagined them adoring us so openly and naively and publically as this. We wondered whether it indicated something very obvious, such as either the daughter or mother had had a recent serious illness, or car accident, or obligatory absence from the family. The weirdest thing was that no one else at the table paid it the slightest attention, and less weird was that both of us English observers felt mildly uneasy and discomfited by the spectacle. It wasn’t so much that both of us were paradigm stifled, uptight, inexpressive Brits, as even by Greek standards this kissing marathon really was extraordinary. Greek men as well as women routinely greet close friends by handshaking, hugging, kissing both their cheeks, and sometimes this can keep on going intermittently for the 10 minute encounter  i.e. they never let go of their bosom pal and can’t resist hugging and kissing them three or four times throughout the delightful pow-wow. But that, you might say, is an expression of excessive affection, not a kind of choreography of apparent filial neediness, or an artless ballet of a child seemingly needing the life support of her mother’s presence.

Apropos obsessive love, you might find it hard to believe, but despite the internet, tweeting and texting, and the ubiquitous dominance of oh so deep virtual relationships from Auchtermuchty to Amersham and Accrington, strong passion and adoration in real time are still alive and kicking in the UK these days, just as they were in Shakespeare’s time. This at any rate was true in 2013 UK, though in a complicated way, and in good old West Cumbria of all places, the last resort of volcanic and disabling passion you might reasonably think. Sad to say it did not concern 2 consenting adults, whether straight or gay, but a woman friend of about my age of 64, a penniless artist called Mary who scraped a living doing things like pub signs and portraits of pet Pekinese and budgerigars, who had finally accepted she had been dumped by the boyfriend she had had off and on for the last decade. He had grown up kids by his long finished marriage, and one of his daughters who was going through an emotional crisis, and whom he doted on, had persuaded him to have a go with his ex-wife again, even though he  had often told Mary that she Carla was insufferable in every conceivable way, and no one could possibly have lived with her for 20 years, other than a brainless masochist and a feckless martyr such as himself. He was a musician and composer called Rex, aged 70, and once Mary accepted Rex was no longer on the scene, but back ensconced with hideous Carla, she had opted for a pugnacious and perpetual chastity. She didn’t think men, and certainly not that joke known as sex, were worth it. They were both hypocritical snares, and she would frankly sooner sublimate any notional cravings by having a glass of wine and a smoked salmon sandwich, or even a bloody Shippam’s fishpaste sandwich  when it came to sensuous  excess.

And yet cynical Mary had found adoring and enduring passion in an unexpected quarter. Her first grandchild David had been born in 2010 way down south in Surrey, but she had seen him only sporadically as a baby, not least because she had such a colossal quantity of ill-paid part time work in Cumbria, she was not like the likes of me, JM, she snorted sardonically, and had had no free time to speak of, not even to visit family. Her daughter Sarah who lived in Reigate, had recently brought David aged 3 up to stay with Nana while she carried on to meet a friend up in Edinburgh, and then to holiday up in the Outer Hebrides. As a result, Mary had had her first grandson all to herself for a whole 10 days, and had, guess what, fallen deeply in love with the perfect little boy. Big time was the precise expression she used, and for once the cliché had some definite force. When Sarah returned from the Uists and took David back to Reigate, Mary was literally bereft, agonisingly so, and totally unprepared for the strength of the sadness of parting. Now if she thought of passion at all, it was certainly not of relationships and amorous intimacy with fools called men, nor even of smoked salmon sandwiches and Gancia wine, but of her truly angelic little grandchild David. She had now committed to looking after him as much as practically possible, when Sarah as a fashion designer was on the road or abroad, and Nana Mary now took her freelance work down to Reigate in her car, rather than slaving away alone and without a man in W Cumbria. Sarah had even managed to get her mother bits and bobs of art commissions down in Surrey, where predictably the rates of pay were at least 3 times what they were in bloody old Cumbria.

Here is a third example of anomalous and unbelievable passion, and one that possibly proves the existence of the Eternal Soul. Let us  go backwards exactly 30 years, to when my wife Annie was a field social worker in an obscure part of the north of England, a large and ugly and impoverished town whose principal industry had gone down the drain with catastrophic social consequences a few years earlier. Annie was only 28 and only 3 months qualified in August 1983, and she had a major professional problem on her hands. She had a case of 2 chronically feckless people, an elderly couple who had mild learning difficulties, or as their indignant neighbours termed it, were daft, hopeless, a pair of bloody halfwits. They lived in a row of town centre terraces and were both about 70, and like many a 5 star halfwit were great enthusiasts for cats and dogs, and owned about 10 of the former and 5 of the latter. Both being weak and infirm, she especially, the dogs did not get any exercise beyond going out into the backyard, nor had anyone ever told the couple about these miraculous gadgets known as catflaps and litter trays. By late summer of that year, the stenches from their yard and from the open windows of their house, were impressive and unprecedented outside of a Bangladesh civic sewage works. When Annie and a male colleague, also about 28, went to inspect, they had to clutch their noses very tight, after George the beaming husband, with luckily nil sense of smell, came to the door. George was very affable and deferential, and offered them tea and crumble creams, but the miasmic and infernal stink was beyond words, absolutely lethal. There were fossilised as well as fresh dog and cat faeces everywhere, the dust and filth of years if not decades, mountains of unwashed crockery in the kitchen sink, and plates covered in the fetching blue mould of ancient tinned meals, a scene of rabid squalor to strike the most hardened professional as something off the scale.

You may not know it, but in scenes of minor mayhem and/or domestic carnage in a social work context, rather than go through the rigmarole and delay of arranging specialist cleaners, a young fieldworker will roll up his or her sleeves, and get on with the cleaning themselves. Annie’s colleague had once entered a room where a man had slashed his wrists and only just survived, and the young social worker had grimaced and sighed and got down on his knees, and industriously scrubbed away all the rivers of blood from the floor and wallpaper. There was no chance of the 2 of them doing the house cleansing here, as only a specialist outfit with masks and superheated steam and the like, could possibly sort out this Hieronymus Bosch phantasmagoria. What that meant was that Annie and her colleague had to find temporary accommodation for George and wife Edna, and as Edna could barely walk and was in a wheelchair much of the time, and had an IQ of about 50, she had to be put in a residential home for psychogeriatrics. George was a horse of another colour, with an IQ of 60, and though very dozy, could get about and after a fashion function solo, and also had a brother in town who would reluctantly put him up for the interim.

In 1983 Edna’s residential home had strict visiting hours, which could only be changed by special arrangement over the telephone. George did not know how to use a telephone, and even if he had, he would have been stumped when it came to saying anything into it. As a result he had only late morning and early evening visits to see his wife, which by his doting standards, were nowhere near enough to support the monumental intensity of their love. The pair of them had enough wits for her to understand that she always had to sit in the armchair next to the huge bay window which faced out into the garden. There were no such things as security codes or locked gates in those days, and consequently in non-visiting hours George could stand outside at the massive window, devotedly beaming in at his beloved wife Edna for hour after hour after hour. He only left when it turned dark, and he sustained himself with cold pork pies and cans of lemonade bought from the nearby Coop. The staff at first had tried to persuade him to go away until the next visiting time, especially as he also had the habit of standing there heedless of the pissing rain and the freezing cold, but whenever they chased him away, like a cat or a dog he always came back. The Head of Home dithered about giving him special status that would have allowed him unlimited visits, but decided it would set an unworkable precedent. Thus it was that the legendary love of George and Edna was allowed to act itself out in the back garden of a now demolished Old Folks Home for the best part of 6 months. They were 70 then and would be 102 if they were alive today. They had been married 45 years in 1983, and somehow despite being halfwits had managed to stick together and bash along and stagger along united in their adoring and unquestionable love. Ultimately they were both placed in a brand new remarkably progressive residential home in lush even princely married quarters, with a double bed to boot, something only feasible in the British residential social work context from around 1980 onwards.

Who knows what they got up to in their double bed? Well of course everyone knows. Only a halfwit of another and truly hopeless kind, wouldn’t know.