ALONE AT MIDNIGHT

ALONE AT MIDNIGHT

This blog now publishes every Monday, and the next post is Monday 1st February. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at john@writinginkythnos.com (I have published 10 books of fiction, been Booker longlisted, and taught fiction writing for over 25 years)

If you haven’t been to Athens for a while, and been watching the news, you might imagine the whole city is walking about borderline suicidal and/ or ready for a fight with anything that moves, and especially if it is German. Right enough Greece as a whole is riddled with overwhelming problems, and the struggling farmers and ill-paid ferry workers are going on strike for good reason. Pensions are being decimated when they were nothing much to start with, and it’s not just the workers; middle-aged professionals are affected too. Senior doctors have had their wages summarily cut, so that now GP practice bosses make about as much as a 21 year-old secretary in the UK. A postman on Kythnos island (the job is currently vacant if you are interested) makes 600 euros a month, or about £110 a week for a demanding 40 hours. You do get to see some spectacular and mostly empty landscape of course, and as many gaping goats as you could wish for,  and without having to pay for the privilege…

That said the whole country and Athens especially, is infinitely resilient. To be sure, if you go to the right places you can see dismal, usually cosmopolitan destitution, and it is impossible to take the shortest metro ride without getting at least three people, usually Greeks, begging the length of the train. They tend to sing or metrically chant their sufferings these days, a bit like Indian beggars, something wholly new, and in its way disturbing, embarrassing and harrowing. Hard up Greeks dig in their pockets nonetheless, and that is one more fantasy dispelled, that they can’t be bothered to support their own less fortunate citizens. In contrast to all that, in the last couple of months I have stayed a few times in the lovely area of Thiseio, not far from Monastiraki, and with superb views of the Parthenon and the hills surrounding. Just down from the train station is Ermou, a mesmerising array of antique and junk shops, bustling, bawling, and in every sense attractively rough and ready. By contrast, walking upwards from the station, takes you to some of the stylish and alluring cafes that give Thiseio the feel of a lively city village, akin to say London’s Belsize Park or Covent Garden. Just before Christmas I was moved to the core one night when the festive lights there were so beautifully arranged around the street cafes, I instantly and effortlessly regressed to being a 4 year-old in 1954, gazing at a glowing and breathing Christmas tree with its dancing fairytale baubles, alone in the gloaming in our little terraced house in West Cumberland. There is a pedestrianised road adjacent to the hotel where I stay, which is replete with exquisitely furnished cafes, and a fine independent bookshop, run by two very cultured young men who have classical music playing the while. You wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else, it is such a satisfying place, and even though the cafe opposite has coffees at 3 euros and the wines are 4, young couples choose to hang out there over a single drink for most of the night, and seem as genuinely carefree as any in London or Paris or Berlin.

Best of all is the cobbled walk from my hotel down to the station, where almost every day of the year there is an open craft market that spreads almost a kilometer downhill. Along with the subtlest, most beautiful and bargain handmade jewellery, there are stalls with leather goods, with wooden plaque art of a usually vintage and/ or mildly risque aspect, with engaging bric a brac, and most enchantingly coin and stamp collectors. A lot of the stall owners have friendly and unabashed dogs, and there are a bunch of amiable strays have taken up Beaming Canine in Residence status, and who are petted and fed as a result. The stalls are open late in the spring and summer, and even in winter some of them persist in the dark with their own illumination and the street lighting combined. A week or so before Christmas, I left my hotel about 10pm, and set off for my favourite Indian eatery on Ermou. Only one stall was going, and the place was otherwise completely deserted. It was run by an unkempt, unshaved old man of possibly late seventies, who wore a battered hat and ragged multiple layers of clothes, and who certainly looked as my mother might have said, like something the cat had brought in. I had seen him there before, and his stall was monumentally unattractive. He had about 50 motley, ancient and uninspiring books, only one not in Greek, a 1911 German treatise on Drainage Engineering. There were also  a few eccentric DVDs on subjects most people avoid; namely A Comprehensive Tour Around the Costa Del Sol, and Rare Sheep Breeds From Around the World (both in English). Needless to say he didn’t have a single customer, and he was warming himself at an old fashioned brazier, and exuded a melancholy but somehow persistent and uncowed air. He expected nothing at all from the acquisitive public, as even he must have realised no one in the world would be interested in his stock, as candidly he himself wasn’t remotely interested in it either. In which case, you wondered why he was here on a freezing deserted night, and why he hadn’t gone home. Maybe his home was a depressing and lonesome bedsit, and he preferred to be sat alone here with the world, such as it was, trickling indifferently by.

Like something out of a Christmas morality tale, I selfishly left the solitary old man to his few burning coals, and went down to Ermou and stuffed myself with a very tasty vegetable thali. I gorged in my luxurious environment, on a massive plate of rice, nan, mixed veg curry and yoghurt and chutney, all washed down with the very best red wine in the world, which I’m pleased to say is 100% Greek and is called Thealos Yis  (google the bilingual website, and your life will be changed forever). The only drawback was, as everywhere in Greek Indian places, they only stump up one curry with a thali, whereas in India and the UK you would get an array of four or five vegetables: typically something like brinjal, sag, phulgobi, aloo mattar and dhal. Regardless of the gripe, it is worth pointing out that the place was full and mostly with Greeks, with only one other obvious foreigner there. The place isn’t at all cheap, so that for example a dish of chickpea masala or an aloo gobi is 7 euros, meaning more than in many a UK place. The majority of customers were Greek couples and student types, and admittedly most of them shared two dishes and one rice and had a Coke between 2, and that was it.  Yet still it would come to about 25 euros, and you would wonder, when the monthly salaries for young graduates lucky enough to have a job are 500, how the hell they do it. That in part, is what I mean about resilience. Despite being skinned and sometimes unemployed, these kids do their best, they shrug their shoulders and smile and laugh, and sit in a stylish bar over a single drink, and dress themselves very fashionably indeed. If you haven’t been to Greece for some time, and go by the scare story news reports, you might imagine Athens now looks like Tirana circa 1970, but far from it. You can’t move for smartphones, beautiful leather jackets, and  blokes who look like a job is a stranger to them, yet who have a brand new Harley Davidson the size of a tank, or a grinning laptop that makes frappe coffee and Nescafe, and understands and Dalek-croaks at least 25 languages.

En route here from  the boat, and away from the centre, I walked through central Piraeus and noted a fine looking Greek restaurant with an enticing bilingual menu. It was everyone’s favourite night of the week, Friday, it was 8.30, and it was completely empty… and the owner quite reasonably looked sad. For months I have been trying to make sense of the disparity between an ailing taverna like that, and a place like the bustling Athens masala place. The answer is that the economic crisis is both real, but is also a mirage as well. That is the appropriately paradoxical (Greek word) lesson that I have learnt. If you don’t accept that, you are always going to be baffled and even obscurely indignant at the sight of Greeks somehow sternly struggling on, and even winning the impossible and extremely unfair fight, no matter bloody what.

Then of course there is the enigma of the grubby old geezer at his hopeless stall, with his twinkling and equally obstinate brazier. I walked home past him just after midnight. His coals were still glowing, his calor gas lantern still hissing, and he himself was fast asleep and audibly snoring. There was him and me, and no one else, not even a stray dog, and that was it. I’ve no idea whether he spent the whole night there, nor for that matter the whole of the run up to Christmas, but I think there’s an odds on chance that the old man did.

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OBSCENITY AND THE RESPECTABLE ANARCHIST

OBSCENITY AND THE RESPECTABLE ANARCHIST

This blog posts very Monday and the next post will be Monday 25th January.  It appears a day early as I am going to Lavrio on the mainland tomorrow. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at john@writinginkythnos.com

Athens is full of graffiti at every turn, and you see it mile by mile as you chug along at a delightfully tranquil walking speed on the city’s trams, from coastal Voula and Glyfada to Syntagma in the centre. Some people, including God bless them, art experts, rate graffiti lettering as a worthy art form. After about 30 years of immensely inscrutable deliberation, I have to admit I am no such fan, and unless things radically change, I never will be. The street-art scene got a significant boost when they made that engaging film Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010). It was about the ebullient vintage clothes dealer living in LA, Frenchman Thierry Guetta, who befriended, acted documentary cameraman, and later was ad hoc PR man in the United States for the world’s best known graffitist, Englishman Banksy. Later he  parodied the great man in his own exhibition, where he called himself Mr Brainwash. Thierry had idolised and imitated Banksy and other graffitists so well, he ended up making over a million dollars, and at his splendid opening, everyone who was anyone was found to be there, darling, knocking back the white wine and the ducky little canapé nibbles. Banksy who is customarily as silent as the grave, or as JD Salinger was between novels, broke his vow, and at the end of the film was quoted as saying his collaborator/parodist/so called Mr Brainwash, was rather derivatively crap, or words to that effect.

You’ll notice that I specified graffiti lettering which I regard as a negligible art form, if only because from Auchtermuchty to Thessaloniki and Des Moines and Detroit, they all use the very same boring and unassertive lettering style. It is seemingly called Blockbuster, and it is a bit like a squint-eyed and anally retentive version of Pretorian. The only pessimistic conclusion I can draw, is that no graffitist in the world has the basic bottle to try out another kind of innovative calligraphy. Given, if you take a sharp look on t’ internet, to quote the ineffable Peter Kay,  that there are millions of lettering types, some very beautiful indeed, and others apparently designed by and for 5-star psychopaths, it would seem that many graffiti writers are all too timid and uncreative conformists worried stiff they don’t look exactly like everyone else.

Not so the more various graffiti artists, or at least the two whose work I saw in Athens. Both of them were of an unabashed sexual frankness, yet for all their in your faceness (forgive me) at least they showed some evidence of a fondness for actual as opposed to theoretical  humanity. The less shocking was that of a naked woman with voluptuous indeed wishfully thinking impossibly outsize and mythologically vast breasts. Underneath in large letters in English, was the genial imperative SUCK! It was clearly meant to be cheekily funny rather than misogynistic, though being strictly accurate the breasts were drawn much better than the face, so the artist showed where his all too naked priorities were. The other one was notionally offensive, arguably not the kind of thing you would want a little kid to see, as I for one really dislike impromptu depictions of male genitals (usually with grotesque erections) such as you get in the malodorous town centre Gents. It showed three huge versions of the same naked and bony man, who was bearded and long haired, and was most probably the artist. In two, his genitals were flaccid and discreet, whereas the third had an upstanding and curving erection. Normally such a thing looks lewd and aggressively antagonistic to women (as well as children) but oddly this one looked no more than a neutral hence unassuming depiction of an erect penis. You could almost say it was a humble and matter of fact portrayal of something which after all is indisputably matter of fact (and biologically an imperative) in its natural context. The graffitist was certainly no great shakes as an artist, but his skinny bearded bohemian had a kind of vulnerable humanity about him, which was anything but vicarious and prurient.

Opposite me in the tram was a dark-haired, neat and sympathetic-looking woman in her early forties, who like Banksy and Mr Brainwash was also engaged in a kind of public art exhibition. The precursor to this, was that she was obviously either late for a vital work appointment, or for an even more vital romantic date. As it was 6pm, it could have been either, especially if meeting boyo Manolis in a  restaurant, and then going on to the nearest 4-screen flicks. She was all too touchingly running behind schedule, for she did something I have never seen in all my life, though perhaps as most of that has been frittered away up in small town Cumbria (51 years when I last calculated) I have long been far too sheltered. She had a vast cosmetics bag, and she was proceeding with slow and lavish precision, to apply her make up from scratch. Lipstick, eye liner, eye shadow, blusher, everything but her glistening nail varnish, which presumably she had decided would pass muster (as indeed it did). To achieve all this, she had to turn sideways and use her compact mirror, then do all the necessary puckering, grimacing, teeth baring and eyebrow raising, which necessary rigmarole, genius comics like Harpo Marx have turned into such gleeful parodies. I have never seen a woman of any age do this on public transport in the UK, unless it was possibly in a parallel railway seat where either no one, or only the adjacent passenger was there to observe.

It would be exaggerating to say it was as if seeing her naked in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense, yes it was. She was striving to make herself look as good as she could, and she was bravely letting the whole world watch the anxious all too human show. And yes, you’ve guessed it, none of the Greeks nearby of whatever age, including notionally eligible bachelor males, gave her a second glance, and only me the nosy foreigner kept sneaking a peek to see her wondrous transformation. You’ll be pleased to know she looked exceptionally good by the end of it, and I hope either the no doubt exacting and irritable Manolis, or the fussy stickler of a new boss of the shop in Amphitheas where she got off, and where she wished  to be deputy manager, was suitably enchanted.

A DIRTY DOG

A DIRTY DOG

This blog now publishes once a week, every Monday, and the next post is Monday, January 18th. You can always contact me any time about anything, at john@writinginkythnos.com , including if you are interested in Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. I have 25 years experience of teaching fiction and was longlisted for the Booker Prize with Jazz Etc (2003).

One of the most fascinating things for any writer, or indeed anyone else to contemplate, is the often incredible gap between the words people use, and what they are supposedly intended to convey. You get this phenomenon all over the world, of course, and you certainly get it big time in Greece. One of the problems Greece has is that it loves, nay fetishises, the English language, and thinks of it as a modish and superior means of expression, and certainly in the fields of magazine and TV advertising. Typically you will get an advert on telly for say indigestion tablets, with all the commentary and most of the captions in Greek, but right at the end in English the fawning voice-over who has got his Advanced Diploma in Oleaginous Cooing, will slurp the two charismatic English words Instant Relief. There is a compelling irony here, though, which is that maybe 80% of the viewers won’t know what either ‘instant’ or ‘relief’ means. Greasy Gus, the voice over, might as well have said of the antacids, ‘useless shite for deluded hypochondriacs’, but no matter, the viewers like to hear the piquant clatter of a splendid bit of English at the end of the ad.

Recently I was sat on a tram not far from the centre of Athens centre, when I saw the best ever example of cognitive disjunction, on a rather smart shop front. In Greek it announced that it specialised in paraphernalia for weddings and christenings, and right next to it in English it revealed its name as Illusion Events. Geddit? It takes a few seconds for the gap between words and meaning to sink in, and then you have a few more seconds to reflect on possible justifications. Fair enough certain weddings/marriages are both at the time and in bleak retrospect, something  of an illusion, or more accurately a swindle, a cod, a dupe. But a ‘christening’ being an illusion, is a more or less meaningless juxtaposition. On reflection, I’m sure they didn’t mean ‘Illusion Events’ at all, but something like ‘Illustrious Events’, the first word obviously at the far end of their lexical spectrum. ‘Illusion’ as a smart and fashionable word, is in any case a dated anachronism, and  goes back to around 1967, when the Beatles were involved with the Maharishi Mahesh, and his Indian ashram. There they imbibed the Hindu Vedanta term maya, which means ‘the illusion of the phenomenal world’, and was briefly all the exotic oriental vogue, especially when accompanied by a resonating sitar.

You won’t believe me when I tell you that only two doors down, there was another business with a name to take your breath away. It was a fast food joint, and it was called after the proprietor and with a curious adjective after his Christian name. It proudly told the world it was Stamatis Bromikos which unbelievably means Dirty Stamatis. Later I picked the brains of a cafe owner in Monastiraki who had good English, and it turned out to be a deliberate and boastful pun. It was a proud admission that Stamatis specialised in junk food, which apparently in Greece is jovially called ‘dirt’. And there at long last by a meandering peregrination, we have got back to where we really want to be, if we would opt for an authentic and unalienated existence, meaning  we have, or at least Stamatis has, coined a phrase with an accurate meaning, viz. ‘junk food’ = ‘dirt food’.

Later that evening I sought out a Vietnamese restaurant that I had spotted from the tram, if only because I had never dined in one before. The food was good, but the Vietnamese element was strangely hard to pinpoint. The menu was mostly Japanese sushi and standard Chinese fare, including sweet and sour x, y, z. I looked hard to find any Vietnamese words on the menu, but not one was on offer. I assumed the friendly middle-aged waitress was from Ho Chin Minh City or Hanoi, but no she said grinning, she was a Filippino. The burly moustachioed waiter who might have been mid thirties and possibly her husband, was as Greek as anyone could be. So here we were again back to the gulf between what words assert, and what they fail to meaningfully confirm. A Vietnamese restaurant that would appear not to be one at all? Great idea, eh? I think I will start an Armenian restaurant in Kythnos that serves only Portuguese food Mon, Wed, Fri, and only Uzbekistan cuisine Tues, Thurs and weekends. However the ‘Vietnamese’ place (an Illusion Event if ever there was) had plenty to offer in terms of ludicrous disparities between emotive words and the absence of any appropriate feelings. To clarify, for background music, instead of say delightful Vietnamese fusion songs from Huang Thanh, or melodious riffs from her colleague Nguyen Le the genius jazz guitarist, we had a continually churning Christmas miscellany CD, sung by nameless American session singers. Suffice to say there was Elvis’s beautiful Yuletide lament, ‘Blue Christmas’ (1957), and would you believe it Chuck or Hank the crooner was bouncing it out in all purpose brainless jazz staccato, and with every evidence of cheerful brio. He was singing about being blue, but was apparently deliriously happy.  I will be possibly making a meal of it, to say that this confirms what RD Laing wrote on the first page of The Politics of Experience (1967), namely that in these apocalyptic, twilight days we are witnessing ‘the dying fibrillations of a senescent capitalism’, but in fact he was bloody well right, and yes we bloody well are. Once you start singing tragic songs cheerfully, and don’t even know you are doing it, it is the end of all sense and all reasonable optimism, unless we can find some spot-on 20 year-old virtuoso skilled at legerdemain to sneak round all the cafes and restaurants and whip off these ‘jingle balls’ CDs, and put on Bach’s or Handel’s Christmas music instead.

Finally let us not forget a thing called comedy, which after all is the one thing that might save this fragile world when surely nothing else will. At the bottom of the ‘Vietnamese’ menu was an intriguing  dish of ‘soft shell crab with vegetables’. It was affably, indeed hallucinatorily translated into English, as Sea Gravel. I have been racking my brain ever since, to work out what seafood/thallasina they have confused with ‘gravel’ (meaning small pebbles). No dice, not a single close homophone. It is thus in the same league as the Athens restaurant I know which translates ‘anchovy’ most exotically as ‘arrogant fish’. The Greek for anchovy is gavros, and there is no Greek word anything like gavros which means ‘arrogant’, nor while we’re at it ‘urgent’ or ‘argot’, ‘argent’ or ‘unguent’.

But at least baffling misnomers on menus, are better than saying one thing with your perfidious mouth and feeling another thing with your confused heart. And if they make us laugh (along with ‘lamp chops’, bekri meze = the bizarre and ungainly ‘drunkard’s appetizers’, and ‘steamad mussels’) they have done their necessary job.