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.

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