CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING

CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING

I am away in Athens for Christmas and New Year, and there will be no new  post until Monday 11th January. Thereafter the blog will publish once a week, every Monday. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at john@writinginkythnos.com.

Merry Christmas and a brilliant 2016 for everyone.

Freddie Bone who was about 55 or 56, in 1966, was an unusual looking man, rather like an Ealing comedy send up of Adolf Hitler, with his surprisingly square head, his clipped moustache, and his oddly foreshortened and truncated haircut. The similarity stopped there, as I doubt Hitler ever wore faded tweed jackets with leather arm patches, and though both of them were fastidious and fussy, I’m  not convinced that Hitler cared very much about exact pronunciation of his native language, not least because he was at least in his formative infant years, a spluttering, slurring Austrian, and not a precise and sonorous German. Bone was Head of English at my Cumbrian Grammar School, aka The Brothel on the Hill, when I was doing my O levels in 1967, and as well as being my teacher then, he also taught the A level General Studies a year later. He happened to know my girlfriend’s father socially, and told him once I was ‘quite intelligent’, which though the modifier might have been added in translation, was a bit of a characteristic disclaimer. I was definitely the brightest, most literate of the bunch, which wasn’t saying much, as they were by and large parochial science students doing General Studies, and I was the only one who read novels and the New Statesman outside of school. However in his classes I was fool enough to make two egregious errors in among my many precocious achievements (synonym for ‘curt’, anyone? No. Ah, yes…yes, you at the front? ‘Brusque’? Very good. Yes, brusque, very good indeed, boy).

I said ‘brussk’ and Freddie said ‘brooosk’, and though I wasn’t phonetically correct, I believe he was even less correct. He also had the singular belief that the consonant combination ‘ct’ as in ‘virtual’, ‘actual’ and ‘picture’, should be pronounced separately, rather than mushed into a ‘kch’ as everyone in the world said it, apart from Freddie Bone. Hence a feasible Bonian sentence might have been, Is this a virtyoo-al image of a picty-ar, or is it an actyoo-al picty-ar?  It occurs to me now for the first time in almost half a century, that Freddie didn’t go the whole fanatical hog, and say something like, ‘that was a deplorable ac-tyon on his part’ which goes to show that pedants will only go so far in their scrupulosity, and even they sense that some of their logic is borderline idiotic if pushed to the limits. At the opposite end to this Academie Francaise approach or the katharevousa versus dimotiki (most appositely the contemporary Greek Fascist junta favoured the former) was Freddie’s remarkably original notion of gentility, when it came to picking his nose in front of us. He had a permanent sniff to the point of a minor handicap, and he found it necessary to do his mucous excavations every five minutes, rather than every break between forty minute lessons. His solution was to put his finger inside his hankie, and then poke away happily and guiltlessly, as if that infinitely hygienic and sanitary guard absolved him from any accusations. It could have been argued that hygiene aside, it was as decorously polite in this particular context, as it would have been if he’d farted every five minutes and placed a paper cup over his arsehole…or alternatively sung the National Anthem or our highly patriotic school song  while letting fly with his irksome wind.

We are but young but we shall grow

To be the heroes of our time

While adding to whate’er we know

We feel that knowing less is crime!

 Quite quite. Dammit, I find myself feeling that knowing less in 2015 is also a crime, don’t you? No? Well you should do. As I said, twice in his 1968 General Studies classes, I made absurdly comical errors in my wish to prove myself a brainbox. One day we were discussing writers who chose unusual religious directions in their personal lives, such as the recently deceased Aldous Huxley. The word ‘mystic’ came up as the agent noun, and of course the adjective ‘mystical’. Freddie Bone the zealous taskmaster said that he wanted the less familiar abstract noun, meaning ‘the pursuit or practice of being a mystic’. No one in among the would be engineers and chemists and bacteriologists and doctors, had a bloody clue of course, so at last I decided to take a reckless stab in the dark. I shot up my hand and when Bone nodded permission, I cried:

Mysticity.

A single student called Wethers was widely read not in fiction, but in the Guardian and the New Scientist and the Sunday heavies… and he guffawed with heaving shoulders at my absurdity. Freddie Bone by contrast, permitted himself a slight and mareish puckering of the lip, which indicated a scintilla of subdued amusement. Perhaps this risible error was why he later told my girlfriend’s Dad that I was alas only ‘quite’ intelligent…

“No, no! Mysticism…” he exhorted the whole of the mesmerised class, and not just me.

There you go. But far worse was to come, and only a few weeks later. Freddie had provided us with a massive reading list if we wished to become seriously acquainted with the best of 20th century fiction, verse and drama. Being born around 1910, and doing his degree in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he showed his age with his Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie, his Eric Linklater and his Joyce Cary…but he also daringly included the Angry Young Men, meaning John Wain, Kingsley Amis, that honorary male called Iris Murdoch (I’m not joking, that was at the time how she was given a generous pigeonhole) and among the dramatists, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker (born 1932). It was with the last one I came to grief, and it followed on from a general discussion, meaning an austere and soporific  Bonian monologue, apropos the notion of proper drama. At one point I was fool enough to mention my fondness for TV drama, it being the only kind I could possibly know up in remote West Cumberland in 1968. Freddie stared at me bleakly, then with a melancholy mien, dug up his snout with his hanky, took a diagnostic glance at his precious finds, and gave his olympian judgement.

“Television plays are not plays, “ he trumpeted majestically. “I really don’t know what they are, but they are certainly not proper drama. The few that I have akt-yoo-ally forced myself to watch, that is.”

And that was that. Bear in mind this was the golden age of Dennis Potter, Joe Orton, Shelagh Delaney, David Mercer, when some of those BBC Wednesday Plays with their raw demotic language and plentiful nudity, and also some of the ITV Armchair Theatre, which of course showcased the outrageous Orton, were truly incendiary, and frightened the delicate shite out of the gents who wanted nothing but Brian Rix bedroom farces, where the sex, such as it was, was baggy underpants around the ankles, and otherwise as antiseptic and passionless as the driven snow.

We moved on briskly to the 1950s playwrights, and I got Osborne’s Look Back in Anger right when no one else had heard of it. Then Freddie decided to try us with something tougher. He demanded to know which of Arnold Wesker’s plays, indeed one of his most recent, from 1962, was his best known, and by now, so to speak, a household name. No one, including me had any idea, and my guess is that neither that play nor any by spleen-filled John Osborne (1929-1994) had been adapted and broadcast on the perennially dull and deadly 1950s, and early 1960s BBC.

As nobody had any notion, Freddie Bone decided just for once to give us a clue, and make it all child’s play:

Chips…” he began, and then stopped dead.

One or two of us openly salivated, though not because of the hit metropolitan stage drama of 5 years ago.

“Oh come, come, come, come, come!” he sternly implored. “You are sixth formers, not ignorant little first formers, and you really should know this kind of thing. You are all supposed to be university material, are you not?”

University material? Do they still say that nowadays? I find it depthlessly charming. It is the second noun that is so profoundly enchanting. Material? Did they mean something like pre-stressed concrete, or the stuff of wincyette curtains? I have never known for certain.

Chips with…” was his second clue.

Suddenly a brilliant inkling came to me. I had after all vaguely heard the name of that play, something to do with the Jewish working class in London? Chips with, chips with, chips with…

Chips with Tomato Sauce? Chips with Daddies’ Sauce? Chips with Fruit Sauce? Chips with Salt? Chips with Bread and Butter? Chips with Bread and Stork Margarine? Chips with…

“Chips with Vinegar?” I blurted confidently, after raising my mitt and receiving permission to proffer my hard earned sagacity.

Wethers guffawed uproariously yet again. Freddie Bone was miraculously quite speechless. He didn’t even bare his teeth like a smiling mare, and he looked at me as if I might have been playing the adolescent fool.

And I will never be sure of it, and he would never subsequently enlighten me, but I also thought I heard Desmond Wethers utter my other ludicrous invention, ‘mysticity’.

 

 

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GREAT HEALTH CARE ON A GREEK ISLAND

 

GREAT HEALTH CARE ON A GREEK ISLAND

This blog now publishes weekly, every Monday. The next post will be Monday, December 14th. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition (novels, stories, memoirs given detailed and precise criticism) at john@writinginkythnos.com

You would quite reasonably think that the poorer a country, the worse the medical provision for ordinary locals, for resident foreigners, and especially for those let’s take the risk and bugger it young tourists, invariably under the age of 30, given to scorning any overpriced holiday insurance. However things can be considerably complicated, and that land of surprises, Albania, which as everyone knows is the poorest country in Europe, did my daughter proud when she was in urgent need in Himare, in the summer of 2012. She was walking barefoot in high grass and was bitten by a scorpion, but being only a mile from her hostel, in this beautiful coastal area opposite Corfu, with its Greek-speaking minority, she hobbled back on her boyfriend’s arm and the manager at the hostel drove her to the health centre. There they quickly gave her medication and bandaged her foot and didn’t charge her a penny, or rather not even a single lek, and didn’t even ask if she had any medical insurance, which of course being young she didn’t, as come to think of it neither did I, when I was her age of 23, and when I was footloose and prone to chronic dysentery in India and Nepal and Pakistan in 1973.

As you know Greece has a few little structural problems, and isn’t yet the richest country in Europe, but the medical provision here on the Isle of Kythnos is remarkable, a cross between infinitely relaxed, instinctively munificent, and imponderably Kafkaesque. My considered opinion is that though my NHS medical treatment and that of my late wife Annie were mostly excellent in the UK, I still prefer this idiosyncratic laid-back Cycladean version. Take note that what follows just possibly applies to small islands, as I can’t imagine it working in the same way in a hectic city like Athens or Thessaloniki. Also bear in mind that I had absolutely nil idea what the Greek system was like when I moved here 2 years ago, and only bit by bit it has revealed its remarkable and ineffable mechanism.

For a start, if you want to visit the island’s smart little medical centre, you don’t have to make an appointment with a doctor or a nurse, you just turn up. And no, this isn’t one of those God awful UK NHS first-come-past-the-door innovations, or of the ring before 8am and you might get seen the same day variation, which drove everyone apart from the doctors who had dreamt the bilious scheme up, half mad. I happen to have a regular need of Vitamin B12 injections, and must have visited the Kythnos health centre about a dozen times by now. Only once was I not seen immediately, as there was one other person there, and otherwise I have stepped straight out of the taxi and straight into the doctor’s or nurse’s surgery. In the case of Sotiria the good looking English speaking nurse of early 40s, it is a case of denims lowered and a painful jab in the gluteal muscle of the backside, though now she jovially asks me whether I  would wish it on the left or the right buttock. I indicate the left corresponding to my politics, and come to think of it the inglorious arse and the ugly maelstrom of party politics, whether Greek or Brit, have much in common (split down the middle, unsavoury in parts and especially in their murky depths). One time the jab was so bloody painful, I made a lot of squawking noise, and Sotiria who has 2 small kids consoled me aged 64, with a pot of home-made glyko preserve jam that she happened to have in her handbag. The last time I had got a reward for being brave was in a Cumbrian hospital outpatients in 1957 aged 6, when I had fallen on my rubberless bike handlebar, and got a wondrous and bloody cut very close to the left eye. The physician who gave me a lollipop was called Happel, though being only 6, I assumed he was really named Doctor Apple.

Whether it is a left of field jab up the arse, or a long or short consultation with a doctor, I pay only for the medication, and not for their time nor the health centre facilities. I get the medication from the pharmacy in the port, and here again the system is so relaxed, I never need a prescription. The doctor writes down what it is called, and I show it to the chemist, and that is that. I get repeat prescriptions ditto, which for me is a boon as I don’t have to taxi it up to Horio to get the bit of paper. As far as I know there are no heroin addicts on this tiny island, and I wonder if there were, whether the same repeat prescription for a methadone facility would be on casual offer. I somehow doubt it. Add to that, that the pharmacy folk are not only in constant contact with the GPs, but know every single soul on the island, and everything they do, and have ever done since the beginning of and to the end of time. If you were up to some scam, they would have it speedily broadcast on the bush telegraph, just as if your medication is of the embarrassing kind, such as for haemorrhoids or intimate fungal itch (your friend and mine, dear old Ms Candida Albigans) it is up to their sense of charity and confidentiality, whether they gossip and laugh their heads off to their pals about that bad-tempered bastard Panos and his incorrigible back passage.

But here is where it gets truly surreal. The doctor and nurses themselves  keep no record whatever of your medical treatment, neither on a computer nor on old-fashioned filing cards. If your treatment is of a simple one-off kind, such as telling you to get X from the chemist for your very bad cold, that is that, there is nil written memo whatever. But suppose you have something more complicated that requires to be investigated, and need a succession of tests for your blood pressure, pulse, renal functions, cholesterol, glucose levels etc. More than likely there will be a blood test or an ECG involved, and that will yield a digitalised number or a print off, that in the former case the nurse writes down on a bit of paper. Once that procedure is finished, the doctor will jot down every separate result for cholesterol, pulse etc, on that little page of notepad, or the single bit of ECG paper. They will also add all the names of the different medications and the dosages you have been put on, as a final foolproof round up. That is your written record of your treatment for today, given to you on the spot, this computer print off or scrap of paper with a few brisk biro comments on it.  The doctors themselves and the health centre keep no copy of this, and there are no such things as medical records, only bits of print off in the hands of the patient and no one else. Great eh? No scope for endless subsequent litigation of course, unless you are a real zealot and make 50 crafty photocopies of your precious bits of paper.

Finally let’s suppose after all these tests, you need to be referred to a specialist. For this purpose Kythnos comes under its sister island Syros, whose beautiful  Hora,  Ermopouli, is the administrative capital of the Cycladean group. There is a small NHS-style hospital in Syros and you will be referred there at nil cost, whoever you are, for possible ultrasound, X rays, and who knows what else. But again, even with the hospital, you do not need an appointment, you just turn up beaming at the wonderful simplicity of it all. Your island GP gives you a letter outlining your problem, and doubtless you lug along your 3 or 4  ECG print offs, and you turn up at the specialist’s door who has not even been pre-advised you are coming. Should there be a queue of 3 or 4 others, your GP has pre-empted any waiting by stating that your case is urgent whether in the last event it is or not (though of course he would only send you to a specialist if he thought it was potentially urgent).

When Kostas the Kythnos GP told me about the procedure for seeing the specialists, quite frankly I was amazed There are so many questions begged by such an easy come easy go system, I didn’t know where to start. But Kostas was adamant that was the case, and though he has been known to frequently pull my leg, he has never once pulled it about anything to do with medical matters.

PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

PASSION FOR BEGINNERS

Important note! For a year this blog has been posting as a daily event, but as of now it will  appear only weekly every Monday. The next post will be Monday, December 7th. The reason is, I am about to embark on a radical new novel, the first for 6 years, and provisionally entitled PASSION FOR BEGINNERS. Once it is finished (and definitely not before) I will publish it on this blog, chapter by chapter, week by week, over about a year

 John Murray also offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Novels, stories and memoirs, all given detailed and precise criticism, appropriate for any writer who is ambitious to be published. Contact john@writinginkythnos.com

An amazing phenomenon today in the Glaros cafe. There actually exists, and I would have sworn it was an impossibility, a Greek TV channel I had never heard of called EPT 3, which apparently does not broadcast endless vacuous rubbish. Ella, re, ti na kanoume  (hey pal, what the hell are we going to do, whatever next)? Even more captivating for yours truly, was that it was broadcasting a most appealing How To Be An Accomplished Artist programme, where a very pleasant Greek bloke of mid 40s with tight curly hair and a chiselled beard, was painting a splendid winter scene replete with fir trees, immense quantities of snow, and  a distant perspective of a fading forest illumined by a pink and shimmeringly sunlit sky. I found myself horripilating (q.v. Sanskrit poetry) just looking at it, and I also shivered at his wonderful innocence, meaning his selfless wish to impart his technical knowledge gratis to the world.

Every time he did one of his professional tricks, such as getting the effect of worn tree bark by applying a sharp edged spatula, or using a little wire brush to get the illusion of dark impenetrable foliage under the fir tree, he stopped and congratulated himself and said, Poli oreia! (‘very nice!’). I will modify that second verb though, for this gentle and peaceable man, who I’m sure would make an absolutely matchless lifelong friend, and who is probably from the far north of Greece, where they do sometimes get snow and floods, bless them, was not boasting about his own skill, but was congratulating the tree itself for being such a fine specimen. It was almost as if his own considerable craftsmanship was incidental, or even that he was some sort of passive conduit of that remarkable beauty, rather than the one who created it.

Even stranger in its bizarrely ramifying connections, is that the last time I had watched such a ‘How To Be A Fab Painter With Nil Evident Talent’ feature, was back in North Cumbria, in prehistoric 2001, when I had just been given a Sky subscription for my 51st birthday by my wife Annie. She wasn’t out to wreck my already porous brain, you’ll be pleased to know, but she knew that I hankered after the outstanding satellite channels Artsworld (now the far inferior Sky Arts 1 and 2); the sadly defunct Performance Channel, and its equally mourned jazz-rich offshoot Main Street; BBC Knowledge (precursor of, and far, far better than the present smug and pallid BBC4) and Film 4 with its excellent if short lived kid brother, Film 4 World, which was then an optional fee-paying channel. So it was that one day in November 2001, while stuck painfully between novels (I had just published John Dory, had completed Jazz Etc, to be published in 2003, and was racking my brains for fertile new subject matter) I chanced to see  on the Hobbies Channel, the identical American twin of this same Greek TV artist I was watching today in 2015.

This 2001 bloke, who of course I did not realise was a twin of anyone or anything, was also, would you credit it, presenting a very accessible guide to being  a successful amateur landscape painter? Moreover, exactly like, let’s call him Kostas here, he had tight curly hair, a tailored beard, and was surpassingly gentle and encouraging to his worldwide viewers! As he dabbed away, he kept saying to the middle aged Brit called me who was suddenly very rapt at his words,  in those calming mid west tones of his, Yup, too easy what ah did thar. Durn easy as pie, you folks, back home

Attaboy, said I to myself delighted. As one whose only graphic skill is pencil drawing of mounds of eggs, potatoes and snowballs, which all look identical to the undiscerning eye, I felt quaintly almost magically reassured, virtually lulled hypnotically by his infinitely patient and tolerant certitude.

But hang on, something worryingly prodded me, was it really that easy to be a very talented artist? Was it really? Of course that was all a smoke screen, as it happened, as I never got off my arse, nor any further than thinking of looking for a 6H and agh, a lethal 6B pencil, a 6 inch ruler, a huge rubber, and some art paper. Instead I was suddenly seized by a very powerful fictional inspiration in a way I had never before experienced. I swear that within 5 minutes, my looking at beardy Hank But Call Me Van Eyck from Idaho, instantly reminded me of someone, a ‘third twin’ as it were, a real person and not a telly star, my inimitable landlord Tommy Dukes of 20 years ago. Dukes it was, who had owned half of the roughest and cheapest but definitely not the most cheerful bedsits in the grubbiest bits of Oxford, and who would encourage as tenants absolutely anyone, and especially his ever reliable unemployed claimants, who had their rents paid for them of course… and not forgetting miscellaneous pariah people like myself and Annie, who were foolhardy enough to own a beloved if alas ‘unhygienic’ dog. Exactly like peaceable Hank here, Dukes had tight frizzy curls and a manicured beard, though sadly all correspondences stopped there, as, cruelly beset by so many massive mortgages, so much debt, and by so many duff and often dysfunctional, i.e. barking mad tenants, he coped with what would have killed anyone else by blanking it all out, and living on a personal budget for him and his family of about £60 a month, which even in the early 1980s, I can vouch for it, didn’t take you far.

The subsequent stage of this effortless flow of inspiration, was that I would now plan a short and discrete fictional scene about the gentle Idaho artist, emphasising his tender insistence that it was ‘durn easy and you folks back home can do it the same yourselves, real simple’. Next, acknowledging the compelling link of vivid personal memory, with its own inherent associative narrative tension, I would abruptly switch to another ‘dramatic’ scene, with his 1982 clone-lookalike Tommy  Dukes. Dukes, with an altered name of course, would be described in some classic caught-by-his-own-cupidity scenario, say the time that thanks to his selective amnesia, he belatedly realised one of his houses was a principal centre for the disbursement of very hard drugs in this hallowed city of dreaming spires.

All this was to be the germ of a novel which would be built up via an episodic digital  narrative, where the narrator’s satellite viewing over a  few  days in 2001, would ingeniously alternate with and be a counterpoint to, the sequential (read analogue)story of his whole life up until he was 51. The faithful sequence would  preposterously be orchestrated by the history of his TV viewing on the good old pre-2001 terrestrial channels(namely BBCs 1 and 2, ITV and Channel 4). I also made this redoubtable square-eyed character of mine, incredibly sex-obsessed, and gave him no less than 4 wives and 4 failed marriages, and the rest was history as they say.

That book was Murphy’s Favourite Channels (2004) and it soon got more lengthy and approving reviews in more posh papers and magazines (10 in all) than any other of my works of fiction. It sold in modest handfuls, needless to add, but received the highest praise from the Lancastrian poet, editor and courageous iconoclast, Alan Dent (born 1951). He wrote to me that ‘reading the book was a bit like feeling I was floating out pleasurably to sea’ and you can’t say better than that.