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‘a fine writer’ Jaci Stephen, The Telegraph

Bojan the Serbian handyman is very depressed in the Glaros this morning. In winter he is very short of work and consequently cash, but has been promised a day’s labouring on a building site by a Greek tradesman. He is waiting for the guy to pick him up, and has been hanging around for an hour and a half, which means it isn’t going to happen. The man’s phone is switched off and there has been no notification of a delay or of anything else. Bojan is angrily eloquent when denouncing him as a malaka, with his deplorable quality of malakiya, and I estimate in the last 5 minutes he has used both words a total of 20 times. Of course this casual mistreatment happens much more with Albanians, Serbs and Rumanians, than it does with other Greeks, but not always. About 18 months ago a huge evening reception was held for a prosperous Kythniot’s wedding, and the owners of the venue promised surprisingly handsome wages (15 euros an hour, no less) for anyone who agreed to wait on for about 12 hours, meaning from 8pm till 8am. I had a good friend Sotiria, an ethnic Greek, but an Australian here on holiday, who was given such a job, and of course she had the invaluable bonus of speaking perfect English. 2 days later she was scheduled to be paid and the husband of the couple employing her, bluntly told her and all the rest of them, he couldn’t afford the unheard of rate and was knocking it down to 10 an hour, which was still damn good money. No protestation by Sotiria whether in perfect Greek or 4-letter English, made any difference to his adamantine refusal. Later she learnt that he had sometimes hired Albanians for seasonal building work and never paid them at all.

The most perplexing and anguished wait I ever had in my life, was in the context of an early date with Annie, my future wife, in our native West Cumbria back in December 1978. We had arranged for her to drive the 12 miles to my house, from her parents’ place where she was living, once she’d finished her day at the hospital, where she was an RNMS nurse. It was so early in the relationship I didn’t even have their phone number, not even their address, and of course mobiles didn’t exist 37 years ago. Nor was there a phone in my rented house, which was more to the painful point. She was supposed to turn up at 8, and so far was ultra punctual, but it went from 8 to 8.30 and then 9 and beyond, and there was no sign of her, nor of course any word from her, and no means of communicating it in any case. I thought the worst right enough, not that she had an accident or anything as catastrophic as that, but that she had decided to promptly knock our budding relationship on the head. There was absolutely no evidence for this grim and dreadful conjecture, as we were both good and crazy about each other, and didn’t need to put it in words or even signs or gestures, much less sing it to the world at large. I toyed with going to the nearest call box and going through everyone in the directory with her surname…but it was one of the commonest of names in that little town, and I would drive a lot of folk mad with my random guessing, and spend a fortune on calls ( I recall that 5 standard phone calls in 1978 = 25p = 1 pint of draught lager, just to give you a handy reference point).

When it got to 9.30 I decided I needed distraction for the hellish night ahead, so tried to read a novel, Toilers of the Sea, a minor work by Victor Hugo, which had the novelty of being set in the Channel Islands. But it wasn’t one of his most gripping, and even if it had been I was incapable of being gripped by any printed word. Instead I turned in desperation to the radio (I had no TV and was a better man as a result) and unusually switched on BBC Radio 4, which even then I tended to very much disdain, unless it was broadcasting a play or a salty travel documentary. Luckily there was some drama starting right now, an adaptation of the novel Fame Is The Spur (1940) by Howard Spring (you can check that I am not inventing any of this by researching the Radio Times December 1978 Radio 4 schedules, surely only a matter of pressing 3  keys on your laptop  by 2015). In any other context, that dramatised novel would have thoroughly absorbed me, even though I had never heard of Welshman and journalist Howard Spring (1889-1965) and these days I seriously doubt whether any of his novels remain in print. Remarkably, no less than 3 of his books were dramatised posthumously on prime time UK television, and most of his novels were also published in the United States. Shabby Tiger (1934) about an ambitious and glamorous woman called  Rachel Rosing,  was filmed for Granada TV in 1973; My Son, My Son (1937) was adapted by the BBC in 1977, and Fame is the Spur which I was listening to now, was not only  made into a film with Michael Redgrave, but was broadcast as a BBC TV series in 1982 with the brilliant Tim Pigott-Smith (born 1946) in an early role. It is all about a Labour leader’s rise to power, which of course ought to have been more gripping as depicted pre-1940, than a fictionalisation of the wavering trajectories of fizzy Ed Miliband or solemn Jeremy Corbyn, initially hitting the big time in their respective suzerainties (in 1978 it was fusspot Uncle Jim Callaghan was actually in power as PM, though not for much longer)

But nothing could have distracted me that night, when I was convinced that Annie had had distressing second thoughts about me. I went to bed early and spent a sleepless night, and knew more bleakness and desolation than was suitable for a bearded 28 year-old, who should after all have been capable of more intelligent lateral thinking than I was. The next morning I had the inspiration to ring the hospital, and ask one of the nurses if I could speak to her. What relief when she said Annie had been sick with flu and had been off work for the last 2 shifts. That same day she drove through and explained that she had crawled out of bed half dead, to set off and see me, but had almost collapsed with the effort. Her no nonsense Mum, also a nurse,  had ordered her back into bed and called her ‘a daft bugger’ as was her excellent blunt way (20 years later, my candid mother-in-law once said to me, apropos of nothing, and as if remarking that it looked like rain,  ‘your bum definitely is betting bigger!’). Annie had become frantic  as she been unable to ring me, and could think of no way of getting a message to me either, and could vividly imagine the fretful misery at  my end. For the future we briefly toyed with using the nearby pub as an emergency communication point, but no such emergency ever arose, because apart from anything else we were married 10 weeks later on the 3rd March 1979. Amazingly we never owned a phone until 1984, which makes you think, though I’m not sure what it is, that it makes you think.


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