GETTING IT IN THE NECK BECAUSE YOU ARE GREEK

GETTING IT IN THE NECK BECAUSE YOU ARE GREEK

This blog posts every Monday, but my daughter Ione is visiting from Leeds, UK, and there will be no new post until Monday 14th March (in case you are wondering it appears today 28th February, a day early, as I am very busy tomorrow). You can always contact me about anything, especially Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at john@writinginkythnos.com. Among others, I have mentored the Cumbrian writer Clare Sambrook whose novel ‘Hide and Seek’,  published by Canongate, went on to be sold in numerous languages before publication

You probably read midweek that the Austrian government convened a meeting of the Balkan states, to discuss their joint fears of being swamped by refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere. They opted not to invite Greece, an outrageous and provocative act that no doubt they thought they could get away with, Greeks being a species of European pariah aka children who will not grow up and do adult things like pay taxes and so forth. Rightly incensed, Greece duly withdrew its ambassador for ‘discussions’. Talk about a nation state being between a rock and a hard place. Russia, and the US and its allies, dropping bombs on citizens like there is no tomorrow, between them are making life impossible for thousands of Syrians, and the USA plus allies are doing the same thing in Iraq. These sad and innocent folk are going to keep on flooding out no matter what, they refuse to stay in an incendiary hell with their children. They will all head west via Greece, it’s the only feasible way to go, and Greece is humane enough to let them in for their transit onwards. But Austria and the rest would wish the Greeks to return most of them whence they came, and because they won’t do that, they are keeping Greece out of their summit talks. So now Macedonia (Ta Skopje if you are a patriotic Greek)has closed the border at Idomeni, and because no one wants to go through Albania which borders with unsympathetic Montenegro and Macedonia, effectively Greece is now like a pressure cooker. It has all these desperate folk flooding in, in their uncontrollable thousands, and the likes of Slovenia and Croatia will now only permit a trickle to make their way through.  You’d think Croatia at least would remember a mere 20 odd years ago, when they were stuck in a genocidal inferno themselves, but alas it didn’t teach them much about a sympathy that is universal as opposed to partisan.

Meanwhile if you are unlucky enough to be a Dodecanese island near Turkey, you get it in the neck big style. I was in tiny Agathonisi in May 2002, well before any refugee crisis, and it had about five tourists and a hundred population and that was it. Now it is swollen with refugees and guess what, like the little island of Lampedusa, off Malta, it cannot cope. Greece was recently in serious crisis over EU membership, and now as well as all its economic problems and currency controls, it has exhausted refugees and their kids decanted from the heaving islands, dossing down in Piraeus or in Plateia Victoria, and making the world weep. But the overall dynamic, the endgame, is very simple and very cruel, and doesn’t fool, anyone, especially the Greeks. Whatever the Greeks do about the problem, they are always going to get it wrong, and will always be the fall guys. So much for glorious European solidarity and the EU. The only type on offer from Austria, Hungary, Macedonia etc, is that which excludes nearly all of those who are non-European.

On a lighter note, like to hear a story about someone on a Greek island who is colourfully bonkers? I was talking to Kostas this week who has a cafe in Loutra and was up in the port on an unwelcome mission. Someone had been reckless and done him a grave injury, and the fact the circumstances were farcical did not ameliorate his considerable indignation. Kostas is in his late 50s, stocky, well read, an Anglophile, an independent thinker, divorced with two sons and he keeps his cafe open 12 months of the year. Loutra in winter is more or less a ghost town, so most of the time his place is completely empty. That suits Kostas fine, as he is busy as an autodidact with his laptop all day, researching his idol Kazantzakis, until perhaps the odd pal turns up and he stops to chat.  There are only about half a dozen of these mates, and most of them have relocated to the Hora for the winter, so drive down specially for the high quality kaffeeklatsch. However one permanent Loutra inhabitant, is a decidedly eccentric and unarguably handsome woman called Maria. She too is mid 50s, also divorced, but in her case minus any children. She is a very good hairdresser and in summer is run off her feet with all the yachties seeking her expert attentions. Now she has no customers whatever, and she fills her days with swimming, sunbathing and stopping to talk to anyone who will indulge her hobby horses and pet obsessions. She comes from one of the obscurer North Aegean islands, and is fanatical about the superiority of all islands over the mainland, so much so she claims that island supermarkets work out cheaper than Athenian ones, which is palpable nonsense. Ferry transport costs alone make that an impossibility. Maria can talk for what seems hours about comparative prices of potatoes in five Kythnos supermarkets, and five comparable establishments on the mainland. She monologues torrentially and if you try to get a word in edgeways, you will fail. Kostas is her ideal listener, as he sits there pretending to listen, but is probably just counting her teeth, not at all a whimsical activity as she has a phenomenal number of them all gleaming white in her attractive if often sullen face.

Today however he was very busy, actually engaged in writing a learned article about Kazantzakis for an Athens literary magazine. It was commissioned, and he was being paid for it, and there was a deadline, and he had no time to chat. He spelled this out as kindly as he could to Maria, but she was so thick-skinned he’d have had to stand up and bawl, Bugger off, North Aegean baby! and have the same thing written in letters a foot high in red paint on a piece of flip chart paper to get her to understand. Nevertheless Kostas persisted at his studious literary task, and turned his back on her, and also poured himself a glass of tsipuro to steady his nerves against her stanchless flood of words. So much so, that even Maria noticed he was playing hard to get when it came to any amicable chat, and so it was she perversely decided to resort to a teasing playfulness. She happened to have a bag of oranges with her, just given to her by a farmer friend from Ag Sostis. Incredibly she chose to toss one of these at Kostas’s back by way of drawing his attention. Luckily she was such a bad shot it went wide of his table, and landed on a distant seat cushion, so he didn’t even know she was hurling those fruity and doubtless succulent torpedos.

The second orange came a few seconds later, and it hit him with force on the right elbow…

Kostas turned in amazement and beheld grinning, impish Maria hurling a third citron grenade in his direction. Naturally enough he exclaimed an obscenity, gamo to (fuck it!) and then that third aeronautic missile landed square on his glass of hooch and sent it flying all over his laptop!

At that point he went totally berserk, not least because his laptop emitted an electrical hiccup and promptly packed in, as raw grape brandy is a bit like foaming Coca Cola when it comes to metals and rapid astringence. Impressively, Maria kept on laughing with blithe unconcern, mainly because she didn’t know much about computers and assumed there would be no ill effects. Once Kostas started bellowing horribler obscenities, she stiffened, and resentfully announced that of course she’d pay for any repairs done by Antonis up in the port. Kostas bawled it might not be fucking repairable, and she tossed her beautiful auburn mane, but wasn’t remotely floored by that either. She told him impatiently, oh what a  fuss of a man you are! she’d buy him a brand new laptop if need be. He was tempted to rant at her then, before throwing her out of the cafe, and inform her that all his important writer’s work was on that laptop and might not be recoverable and that would be catastrophic. But the heartening truth was he obsessively copied everything onto multiple USB sticks and nothing that really mattered would have been lost, thank God above.

“All the same,” he mused to me in the Glaros. “That beats all. Flinging fucking oranges at a glass of brandy, and just because she wants to fucking talk. I wonder if she’d had a bag of potatoes, would she have done the same? Or rodis/pomegranates? Those buggers with their funny tops can sting like fuck if you get one across the earhole, re. Too fucking right they can, vre.”

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MISS CROFT HALF A CENTURY ON

MISS CROFT HALF A CENTURY ON

This blog posts every Monday, but my girlfriend Monica is coming from London soon, we will be having a holiday in Athens and Kythnos, and there will be no new post until Monday 29th February. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at john@writinginkythnos.com. I taught fiction for the Arvon Foundation, and the University of Cambridge (Madingley Hall) for over 25 years.

I recently bought a present for the little boy of a Greek friend here on Kythnos. He is 4 years old, and in the village bibliopoleio, I got hold of a set of DVDs and a book all about Noddy, the innocent little puppet lad with the triangular cap, the red and yellow taxi that he drives by way of a job, and the bearded gnome friend called Big Ears. The first Noddy book appeared originally in the UK in 1949, and the last one came out in 1963. I’m assuming there might be a few foreign readers out there, have never heard of him nor his author Enid Blyton (1897-1968), a towering and impossibly prolific legend in herself. My guess is they’d have to live somewhere very remote, Novya Zemlya or rural and road-free North West Togoland, as everywhere I have travelled, Noddy and Big Ears and Bumpy Dog and PC Plod are there, and in abundance. And by the way, note that this roll call of the good and the infinitely harmless puppets, omits the wicked and creepy presence in the books of Sly and Gobbo, two nasty little goblins with truly hideous pointed ears and noses.

You couldn’t move for Noddy translated into Portuguese on Algarve news kiosks back in the mid 90s. Nor can you two decades on in Greek peripteros, where he is rendered into Greek as NONTI. It was only when I had the present at home, it struck me as a bit poetic and more than a bit moving, that I had probably read these same Noddy tales myself, when I was his age 4, back in West Cumberland in 1954. Of course they didn’t have DVDs 60 years ago, and we only got our TV in the pit village in 1956. But isn’t it remarkable that the books I enjoyed in a remote English province, are now being read by a little Greek boy in an obscure Cycladean island over 60 years on? Agreed, that if my friend’s son had been 12, and I had bought him David Copperfield or Heidi or Black Beauty in Greek, that I had read in English in 1962, it would not have been a miracle. But an arguably very dated UK children’s author, whose principal staple is cheery and very English school stories, rather than the magic and wizardry of world celebrity JK Rowling, it seems to me altogether mindboggling, that Enid Blyton should be being read here in Kythnos in Greek in 2016.

In the autumn of 1954 I had just begun, with no slight trepidation (I was ever a happy home bird) at the village nursery school. My two teachers were Miss Croft and Miss Taylor, one dark and one blond, one minus glasses, and one plus a notable squint and specs, both in their mid 20s, and both outstandingly kind and caring women. Fast forward no less than 50 years to the autumn of 2004. I am launching my novel Murphy’s Favourite Channels to a fairly packed audience in Tullie House Arts Centre, Carlisle, Cumbria. Before I begin the reading, a lady of about 75 on the arm of a woman writer I know already, turns up and introduces herself as the former Miss Croft, my nursery teacher from 50 years ago. I can get as emotional as the next  in the right circumstances, especially with Greek sunsets, Greek dawns, John Abercrombie’s and John McLaughlin’s guitars playing jazz so tender they would make anyone, even stogie-chomping Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone cowboy movie, weep. Anyway Miss Croft and I were both tearful and embracing, as neither of us had clapped eyes on each other for a not unpacked half a century. She looked damn near no different to me, then 25 now 75, though the hair was a little bit greyer. As far as I recall, at 4, I wasn’t bearded, bald and long haired all at once, but she charmingly claimed I hadn’t changed a bit either, and she had also closely followed my writing career through the local papers and TV.

I need to tell you more about these Tullie House book launches, as they go to show that way out in the forgotten sticks, meaning dear old neanderthal North Cumbria, they can still do things in style, and especially if they are determined to do their local lads and lassies proud. The genius behind it all was Mick North (born 1958) a Lancastrian who migrated up to Cumbria in 1991 to become Carlisle Arts Officer. I had met him earlier in 1986 when I was flogging copies of my Panurge magazine down at Lancaster University, and he was a mere boy of 28 who was then in charge of the prestigious Lancaster Litftest. Before Mick arrived in Carlisle, whoever the Arts Officer was had been no visible dynamo. Famously they had got a distinguished theatre company to come along without bothering to promote the event, so that on the night itself, its single performance, not only was the dozy Arts Officer not present, neither was a single member of the public. The local TV advised of a humorous scoop, went along to show the ticket lady sat in the stalls beamingly enjoying the play, which the courageous actors went ahead and performed, in full, to an otherwise empty theatre. Mick rapidly changed all of that, in a way that his stunned council bosses could only marvel at. Right away he booked ‘Three South American Women Novelists’ on tour around the UK, but instead of sitting on his hands and hoping for the best, he mail-shotted trades unions, WI’s, and women’s groups all over North Cumbria and South Scotland. Lo and behold by intelligently targeting all the focus groups, he got an extremely respectable audience, and I was there and saw it, and was suitably impressed. Of course it needs both confidence and sharp brains to do something like that, and it also helps if you come from outside of Cumbria where things tend to go by old and tried if hopeless methods, meaning plenty of token and supine gestures, but not a lot of trying. Anybody can get an audience, even in sleepy Carlisle or Wigton or Dumfries, for the Bolshoi Ballet or for Kiri Te Kanawa, but for Three South American Women Writers?

When Mick decided to launch my books, and he generously showcased 6 of my novels between 1993 and 2006, he had a brainwave, and one which I thoroughly applauded. Instead of inviting folk along to a dreary old literary reading and nothing else, he thought, let’s give them something special that will be a bit of luxury icing on top of the all too worthy cake. His inspiration was to get the Tullie House catering staff to provide an optional themed meal, so that folk could not only come and see me fooling about performing my comic novels, but also have a gourmet meal notionally allied to the contents of the book. So for the piscine spiritual thriller John Dory in 2001, there were exquisite fish dishes (halibut and salmon) on offer, along with some delicious vegetarian options; for Jazz Etc in 2003, he opted to put on an approximation in the form of Cajun/ New Orleans cuisine. A strict vegetarian himself, he nevertheless offered meat and fish dishes to get folk in the New Orleans/ Creole gumbo , swamps and sultry erotic, Cajun and orgiastic jazz mood. It was, thank God, an extra bonus for those selfless pals of mine, driving from the far end of West Cumbria, to make a whole night out of it. They could count on great food as well as the horseplay of my book launch afterwards, where I always included inane quizzes with sumptuous prizes as part of the histrionic buffoonery.

2 sample quiz questions I put to the Tullie House audiences at my book launches.

-How much does a packet of 20 Capstan Full Strength Maximum High Tar cigarettes cost these days (a visiting Hawaiian American got the right answer, and he fearlessly smoked 60 a day of the incendiary buggers)?

-Who out there can accurately pronounce (this was posed at the launch of The Legend of Liz and Joe) in faithful Cumbrian dialect his galluses’ lyeups flyeuh lyeuss [the loops of his braces/suspenders flew loose]?

The best attempts earned the winners a bottle of Jura malt and a bottle of Irish Jamieson’s whiskey respectively.  It should be noted that the single genius (apart from me who wrote it in the first place) at pronouncing the mad Cumbrian dialect, was from Suffolk, and she was notably posh, and ought to have been a Radio 4 newsreader. Nonetheless hoist by my own petard, in the end my book launch quiz prizes cost me about as much as the fee that Mick managed to wangle for my readings. But frankly, and I mean between you and me and when the artistic chips are down, who cares? You only live once, is one of those rare adages, that when it comes to truly numinous and ineffable sagacity, can never be improved on.

BAFFLING SIGHTS IN ATHENS

BAFFLING SIGHTS IN ATHENS

This blog publishes every Monday and the next post will be Monday February 8th. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at john@writinginkythnos.com. I have won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories, was longlisted for the Booker, and have published 10 works of fiction in all

Yesterday in the Glaros, a raucous TV quiz show was blaring away, and a brawny young contestant with a very sizeable chest, was sporting a t-shirt, the whole of its front emblazoned with a Union Jack. This barmy and quite inexplicable anglophilia of the Greeks, is impossible to get away from, even on the Isle of Kythnos where young kids often have London buses and Big Ben in place of flags. I seriously wonder why they don’t have a plate of fish and chips, a gaggle of football vandals, or the beaming face of the late Benny Hill as testaments to the totemic charisma of dear Old Blighty. All of which reminds me that it is not only images, but also English words that captivate the Greek imagination, and especially when it comes to naming fashion shops and clubs and discos. Back in December, I was walking the atmospheric backstreets near Ermou, in Athens, where I beheld a disco with a curious name. It was called SOWL and it had  a neon picture of an owl next to it. So far so good, but my numb brain took some time to figure out the pun. Like a berk I was asking myself why anyone would want to go into a disco named after a bird. Bird of the night? Rakish peregrinations? Mm, but also the pejorative association of a predatory bird? Nah, too far-fetched. Wise owls?  But wisdom isn’t the usual qualification you need, if you wish to do well when going in search of something specific and hopefully sensual in a discotheque.

After about twenty minutes I twigged the pun was with the word ‘soul’. But then I reflected most Greek kids won’t know the English word ‘owl’, which is nothing like the onomatopoeic Greek word koukoubagia, and even if they did, to make the lateral move of ‘sowl’ = ‘soul’ is no little tortuous, what? What I’m getting at, is that Athens entrepreneurs and shopkeepers, in their wish to be modish and a la vogue, often go over the top in naming their businesses, and at times announce with trumpets the exact opposite of what they mean. An example I gave recently was of the weddings and christenings shop in Amphitheas which the owner had called the bleakly existential  ‘Illusion Events’ when they meant presumably to call it ‘Illustrious Events’.

Something else was to perplex me about a mile away, as I walked the long cobbled path from Thiseio towards the nearest Post Office, and  a number of brand name shops, stylish cafes and periptero kiosks. En route there is an ancient archaeological monument, a modest affair about the size of a large and ruined outhouse, with a dark and murky interior which presumably might continue as some sort of archaic tunnelling network or other hazardous mystery. It is surrounded by railings set narrowly apart, so that no human being could get through them, but which say a tiny toy dog could wriggle through no bother. A posh elderly lady in furs, straight out of a 50’s Ealing comedy Greek style, had just unleashed her titchy little dog and was actively encouraging it to go through the railings and to do its toilet inside the grass surrounding the ruins. As a dog lover and one of those who spent years looking after a small infant, I am a virtuoso panicker and very good at envisioning catastrophes which some folk might regard as improbable. The little dog was very docile, and obediently just played and peed on the grass, sniffed at manic length, and then immediately returned to this Greek dowager, when she called for it. But what, I conjured to myself anxiously, if it should decide to explore the mysterious innards of the venerable ruin? There was an iron gate of sorts set into the railings, but it was double padlocked, and to find out who had the key might take several hours if not years. If I had owned Fifi the Shi Tzu or whatever it was, I would never have let her through those railings just in case she had been stuck there for days. In the same way some 25 years ago, when my daughter Ione was not quite 2, I used to watch in alarm young mums back in North Cumbria allowing their toddlers to race ahead on a pavement. Adjacent on the short cut road that led to the bottom end of town, there was substantial speeding traffic, bloody great vans and show off young lads in new cars. If the child had wandered onto the road, they were too far for the mother to race ahead, and avert an accident, or even a  tragedy. It needs to be put on record I think that sometimes when you accuse folk of lack of imagination, it has nothing to do with arty-farty creativity, but is synonymous with lack of simple common sense when it comes to the sensible protection of children.

Finally here is a baffling mystery with a dignified and I would say a positive resolution to it. Later that day I was on the tram that goes between Syntagma and the coast at Glyfada. I happened to be sat opposite a striking-looking woman and the significant point is, that for those first few moments, I was looking with curiosity only at her top half. She was a large and attractive lady of about 40, with a figure my mother and mother in law would have called hefty, a fine and resonant term if ever there was, if only because when you are so described, it is a lot nicer word than ‘fat’, and for that matter ‘plump’, and certainly the truly ludicrous word ‘stout’. The reason I looked at her with curiosity was her earrings. They were massive, possibly the biggest I had ever seen, apart from some of those hanging from the ears of certain African tribal women. They were either silver or some exquisite metal alloy, and they were in concentric coils, fashioned by the designer with a kind of zestful flourish. She had dark hair and wore a lot of make-up, but subtly applied and far from garish. I would say her cosmetic taste was both defiant and assertive, just as her earrings were out to draw attention with confidence and elan. It occurred to me that being so hefty, her outsize  earrings somehow niftily offset any imputation of obesity, meaning that they were a fine bit of intuitive sleight of hand.

I was just mentally congratulating her, and was even seriously tempted to lean across and say as much in Greek, for making the best of her girth, when my eyes almost as an afterthought followed down to her lower half. At first I genuinely thought I was hallucinating, as her legs appeared to me in their full and uncensored amplitude. She had a short skirt and expensive black tights and restraining myself from audibly gasping, I hastily tried to envision her clad in denims instead. Just possibly the skirt and tights were a serious mistake, as this woman’s legs were literal tree trunks, by which I mean mature and stout and plump and very fat adolescent trees, whose width took a measurable time to traverse with my gaze. Both of her huge calves might not actually have been quite the width of my torso, but they looked as if they were each the width of my torso, which is all that counts in the last event, in my opinion. I really couldn’t tear my eyes away, as worryingly I thought I was misperceiving, and I sincerely hoped for her sake that eventually my vision would accommodate to take her out of the realm of epic mythology and into ordinary human dimensions.

Anyone who has sampled the work of Rabelais (1494-1553) and read of the gigantic dimensions of Gargantua, Pantagruel and Gargamelle, will know of their titanic coordinates and their corresponding appetite for cartloads of food and drink. Almost certainly influenced by Rabelais, though no one has ever suggested it as far as I know, was Dubliner Flann O’ Brien (1911-1966) whose masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), is full of learned satire and parodying of the ancient Irish epics. O’ Brien was that rare thing, an expert scholar of Old Irish, and one of the novel’s several narratives has a farcical skit on the story of epic and hyperbolic hero Finn MacCool, as well as Mad King Sweeney. Finn is a literal giant, as befits a great hero with ‘a backside the width of five hundred fosterlings of ewes’. The reason why bringing in backsides here is pertinent, is that again as a delayed cognitive reaction, it occurred to me amnesically as I sat on the tram, that if this woman had massive tree trunk Gargantuan legs and thighs at the front, she logically must also have, and to show my age (I’m talking about vinyl records) a flipside or a B-side. The B-side of her massive thighs must be a massive backside, a bit like Finn MacCool’s, though more aptly it would be five hundred fosterlings of baaing Greek goats in her case. But once again, I racked my puzzled brain to determine (as already I felt somehow quite protective towards her) if it would be possible to have gigantic thighs that did not logically and inevitably subtend a gigantic behind. But God love her, even if such were the case, it would make her truly freakish and alarming if she was such an anomalous and ungainly specimen.

The  revelation came when the woman stood up to get off at Aigailou. If I had used my wits I’d have worked out that her suede coat would have more than covered her epic bottom, which indeed became a salutary and even hieratic mystery known only to herself, and those she loved. Her coat even concealed the very stoutest part of her Old Irish epic and truly gargantuan thighs, almost the size of Gargamelle’s. As for the woman herself, she shook her head defiantly as she walked towards the exit, and her magnificent earrings glinted in the December sun. She really couldn’t give a damn what anyone Greek or foreign thought, that was all too obvious, and I was glad for her, and thought she had shrewdly made the best of the cards she had been dealt.