THE BALLET OF THE MAD DOG

This post appears a little early and the next one will be on Sunday, February 5th

THE BALLET OF THE MAD DOG

Last Thursday was one of those days where despite eating frequently and copiously, I felt hungry to the point of being unfillable, or perhaps like some oriental sheikh, I was unappeasable. I felt more or less like some stray cat or dog, for as the wise ethologists tell us, the single strongest primitive instinct of both our boon companions, is the constant hungry search for food. Departing the UK from Stansted airport, at 7am I was guzzling smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, which theoretically should take some digestive effort, especially at that time of day, because as you all know smoked fish has a habit of mercilessly stomachically repeating. Once reached Athens and then changing buses at Markopoulo, I bought a delicious kaseiropitta cheese pie and fed half of it to a very nervous and handsome black mongrel which had I lived in Markopoulo I would have immediately taken in, it was so obviously homeless and needing love and guidance and someone to dote on it and christen it Billy Joel or possibly Clint . The bus went no further than Lavrio, meaning I had to get a taxi to my Sounio hotel whence I would catch the 7am boat to Kythnos on Friday. That gave me ample time to buy a second exquisite kaseiropitta and a bottle of wine for the evening in the hotel. I then crossed the busy main road and headed for the taxi rank, where my chosen driver proved before long to be an unusual and highly original Greek male. He was perhaps 55, with jet black hair, a neat pony tail, and a look of profound and placid independence. Two things confirmed this as soon as I got in the car, one being that he smoked a pipe which no other Greek does, the other being that Tchaikovsky was percolating mellifluously from his CD player. There must of course be classical music lovers in Greece, but even among academics and intellectuals I have never met any, for they like every taxi driver other than this one, were always fiercely partisan for Greek music and asserted that everything else was equal last, whether it be Miles Davis or Des O’Connor or King Crimson or Mrs Mills and her Party Medley. Parenthetically, the same thing applies to cosmopolitan food, and while they will politely shuffle Indian or Chinese cuisine around their plates, most Greeks will only really tuck in with passion to ladhera or kreas or souvlaki or psari.

“It’s the Nutcracker Suite,” I said with profound delight, and believe me I had to rack my brains for the verb ‘to crack’ and even more so the agent noun ‘cracker’, though karpos for ‘nut’ came easily enough. I told him that it was one of my very favourite bits of music, as it reminded me of childhood and the euphoric intensities of infant joy, in a way that few other things did. I added that back in England I had recorded no less than 3 different performances on video tape of which my favourite was the 1990s Bolshoi version specially designed to appeal to the remnant child in all sensitive and discerning adults as well as to children themselves. Suffice to say the toys were all dressed as very old fashioned Russian peasant toys, that the poignant and dappled snowfall was done by ingenious stage lighting across a vast rear curtain, and that the skinny rag doll who did his high velocity spinning rotation was not a young man but a little Russian wizard magically possessed. Best of all, and it always brought tears to my eyes, was when he was picked up by a hefty fraternal companion so that all his limbs alternately flopped and stiffened in contrapuntal gravitational response, a comical passivity belied by the whirling dervish mania that followed. The taxi driver nodded his connoisseur’s pleasure and indicated a massive collection of classical CDs on the passenger door shelf and boasted that he played no other.

When it came to pipe smoking he was similarly exclusive and he showed me a tin of Erinmore tobacco, his one and only brand. I told him proprietorially (my grandparents were Scots) it was from Scotland, but looking grave he answered no, no, it hailed from Denmark. It was unobtainable in Greece, he explained, and he had to get it on the internet from Denmark. Yes, but no, I artfully countered, for I was sure it was made in Scotland, even if for whatever reason they had a warehouse stuffed to the gills with Erinmore in Denmark, the name was Scottish Gaelic, because the ending -more was a corruption of mor meaning megalo or ‘big’. That said,  and embarrassing to admit, subsequent internet research proved that he was right and I was wrong, and weirdest of all and smacking almost of the occult was that up until 2005 the tobacco was made by Murray and Sons of the UK, before shifting to Scandinavia!  Yet ignorant of all this and as I paid his fare I reflected with emotion that my own pipe-smoking Dad, Ian Murray (1915-1992) inhaled nothing other than St Bruno, and what he dreaded more than anything else was to receive pipe tobacco as a Christmas present, as his dozy relatives always got it wrong and bought him every damn thing from Old Holborn to, God help us, Baby’s Bottom (‘as smooth as’), but never ever St Bruno.

The Sounio hotel proprietor is a fine and handsome man in his seventies who has been married twice, has no less than 6 children, one as young as 22, and currently has a very nice girlfriend, a status he finds so much more relaxing, however alluring, than his maintaining a third wife. He often breaks into spontaneous and very passionate Hellenic song, especially if the hotel is full to the rafters. Today I was the only guest which seemed to please both of us, and no random singing was to be had. As another striking accommodatory quirk, next to the breakfast recess as you enter the hotel, there are two enormous stuffed animal toys, a lifesize leopard and a tiger, so much better than the disgusting slaughtered versions. He also has a charming and very real little cockatoo near his desk with its permanently open cage, so that often as you are eating breakfast the cockatoo will be perched 2 tables away, watching you eating with an incredulous look, and making melodious and always polite little squeaks as he stares. Finally, the hotel has an extensive library for guests, but none of the books are in Greek, all but one being in German, as it transpires that one of his wives was from Munich. There is precisely one English tome on the shelves and it is the autobiography of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. I had turned to it hopefully on an extended stay in 2014, as I had nothing else to read and we were miles from any bookshop. The first paragraph I was delighted to see was surprisingly well written and then behold the  subsequent 100,000 words were Keith in luxuriantly unedited free flow (from memory ‘an then we went to the bar, an then we got really effin pissed already being well stoned as you’d expect of course, an then this rather fat and not very good looking at all but downright ugly chick showed up an then cos I had had more than a few beers, an not bein too discriminatin…’)

I unpacked, sat down on the bed and read some Henri Bosco (1888-1976) the truly extraordinary writer from Avignon, and quaffed a glass of very pleasant Greek white wine. But hunger treacherously overtook me once again, and this time specifically for something sweet. To be sure the wine was sweetish but not sweet enough for me and my urgent primal needs. I recalled there was a fine zacharoplasteio cake shop half a mile down the busy main road to the Temple of Poseidon, Sounio’s special glory, always swarming with tourists, January included, and an extortionate fortune to get in and take a reverent dekko at. The problem was it was 6.30pm by now and pitch dark out there, and it might well be shut. Next to it was an excellent Italian restaurant run by Greeks, but I was stuffed with the almira savoury of 2 cheese pies and wished for the glyko sweet of say baklava and some Rowntrees’ Smarties for good measure. Yet it was worth the gamble I decided, and I put on my posh new duffel coat purchased in good old Bradford by always generous and lovely Jan, and wandered downstairs where the hotel owner was laughing raucously over the phone with some chum or possibly ex-wife or one of 6 kids.  It was freezing cold on the highway and I strode as fast as I could to generate heat. On both sides, there are posh exclusive villas, as Sounio is a very class address, even though bafflingly it has nothing in the way of shops or any focal centre (that’s the rich for you, eh, no centre of gravity, all random points bedamn). To the right there was the clamorous barking of an evidently outsize dog and it was noisily charging up and down its spacious manorial garden, woofing at someone who had the unHellenic gall to walk the highway by night like a sneaking and despicable footpad.

Confident it was safely behind a barred gate, I vauntingly lobbed insults at it, as, although being an indiscriminate dog lover, I don’t care at all for the big ones that intimidate with their size and their vocal power. Fuck you, I hurled at it, go and get fucked, and other puerile admonitions to an animal which after all does not understand the imperative or any other grammatical variant of the impolite and let’s face it cliched obscenity. I certainly wouldn’t have bawled the insults, had I known the truth of things, which was that amazingly the dog was not barred in at all, but free to roam the road through an open gate, an anomaly which only fathead, who gives a shit, devil may care Greeks, whether rich or poor would permit. There was barely any traffic tonight, but otherwise this highway was a lethal race track, fit for speeding show-off macho motorists to prove their naïve mettle, and that includes macho smileless women in their thirties and forties and fifties ditto.

Not to speak of the truly criminal wickedness of allowing a bad and giant dog to importune a harmless foreigner bent only on obtaining a stash of Smarties to appease his urgent historical hunger. I was very frightened of course, as it stalked me from about 20 yards, creeping ever nearer barking and slavering, and it was so dark I couldn’t see whether it was a bulldog, a pitbull, a wolfhound, or a rampant and bilingual German shepherd. Uppermost though, was my anger against its moronic pampered plutocrat Sounio owners who let it roam the fast road like the worst of negligent Greeks, the inverse being their charming practice of acquiring a dog to guard their oh so precious allotments and estates, and tying it by a rope to an upturned barrel which is to be their permanent address for evermore, with fuckall working chance of any exercise or anything but the scantest food and dirty drinking water. When they are not cheerfully doing that to their dogs, they are blithely imprisoning songbirds in cages the size of tea caddies, with nary a blind thought of what it feels like to be a chained dog, a caged bird, an unchained hound vulnerable to speeding traffic, whilst also ripe in the interim for wresting a phantasmal limb from an irritating and impudent spectre of the pitch black night.

I swore viciously and crazily flapped my arms at the invisible monster, and implicit in my unrestrained theatre, I was cursing the idiot owners who deserved neither an animal nor a glorious Sounio mansion but an upturned barrel in outer Dhaka or Mogadishu where they should be chained with a diet of vegetable mush and a bowl of dusty tap water, just to let the buggers know what it was like to repine for eternity on the other side of the animal divide. Meanwhile the deafening harassment and my righteous counter-bawling might also have gone on for ever, until I saw that I had reached the cake shop and the restaurant adjacent. I crossed the road as rapidly as I could, and the hysterical cur intimidated by the lights of the two shops, the presence of the law so to speak, slunk away in silence. Even better the cake shop was still open, and did not close until 7.30 every night, apart from Sunday. The stout and friendly female assistant of about 40 was mopping the floor in preparation, but welcomed me in and asked me what I was after and what she could hope to do for me.

She could offer me her sweetness of course, both that sweet respite from a mad and snarling dog and a whopping portion of delectable looking baklava with its fillo pastry, honey and walnuts beaming up at me from below the glass counter. I also opted for a bulky cosmopolitan Mars Bar rather than meagre transnational Smarties, and just to complete the excess I would also purchase another kaseiropitta cheese pie, on the proven basis that once I had stanched my sweet tastebuds, I would probably feel the stirrings of their savoury counterpart, and indeed those sweet and savoury riffs and my concomitant addictions might spiral on for evermore. The assistant smiled at my profligacy, put the baklava in a smart decorative box, took my 5 euros, and wished me a kindly sto kalo valediction. Then as a sudden afterthought, and a touching free gift, she gave me a little shortbread biscuit flavoured with portakali orange, something which I knew from experience to be only just tolerable between the jaws and nowhere in the league of sumptuous baklava or ekmek kadaif, both of which I’m sure you have guessed, are Turkish names for sweets, not Greek ones, along with their savoury counterpart of the delicious aubergine imam (properly imam bayeldi, the imam having fainted from an excess of the exquisite savoury oil…)

I strode back into the darkness, obviously fearful that the dog was still roaming loose and lethal, and wondering how the hell I could frighten it off now, as the proportions were worryingly reversed, and it lived 1/3 of the way to my hotel meaning I had 2/3s of the way to traverse with it snapping at my fearful arse and indeed at my most anxious soul. Thankfully though, there was not a squeak from it as I approached where I believed it lived…its dozy owners had evidently heard the earlier ruckus and decided to try that oh so elusive and unGreek tactic of commonsense and stick old Brutus in front of their massive flatscreen TV and the latest oh so passionate and frequently violent Turkish soap…which might in turn of course by regular viewing have encouraged Brutus’s latently and patently violent side.

Had they fuck….had they hell as like…

There it was again roaring its pampered Sounio bollocks off, and back on the quest of the loathsome foreign phantom who was now insolently clutching an aromatic treasure trove of country style cheese pie, Ottoman baklava dripping with aphrodisiac honey, and thus objectively worth murdering, meaning ripping ear to ear, for the wondrously tasty spoils. For a second or two I resorted to my own counter-rant, a kind of demented slavering Kythno-Cumbrian barking, calling the dog some truly deplorable things, most of them whimsically nonsensical, as I accused it of addiction to fellatio, of manustupration, of vauntingly co-owning an enormous brothel full of disease ridden odalisques and so forth.

The dog was just within a handy 10-yard rush for the kill, when in one of my far from frequent bursts of inspired lateral thinking, I decided to hearken once again to the ethologists and their talk of animal instincts, and that timeless urge to staunch their historical ravenous hunger, by which I mean frequent historical famine.

I reached in my carrier bag and unearthed with some struggle the flavourless little orange shortbread biscuit. I broke it hastily into four discreet portions and flung the first in the direction of the slavering wolf. The wolf immediately ceased its hysterical barking, and revealed itself cautiously and rather ludicrously under the lamplight as a very respectable looking golden retriever, a species which I know from long experience to be as soft as a chocolate marshmallow and which always will be. At once it began a diligent investigatory hoovering to locate the orange tidbit, so that just to fox it properly I flung the other 3 portions well behind it at successive 10 yard intervals. Brutus or more likely o Kyrio Apollo bothered me no more, needless to add, and its deafening silence was so beautiful to my freezing cold and magenta red English lugholes.

Back at the hotel, I confounded myself by wolfing down (note the crucial verb) the kaseiropitta pie in about three ravenous, nay demented bites. As I guzzled it, I felt as if I had been through about ten evolutionary aeons, and had been painfully and cruelly starved of everything I needed throughout the passage of all that hallucinatory time. Then I turned my becalmed attention to the baklava and the Mars Bar and delicious as they both tasted I realised that the savoury will always be essentially superior to the sweet, and I trust that you understand I am not just talking about something as transient as bloody old food.

SANTANA ALSO LIKED HIM

I am very soon going to the UK for a fortnight, and the next post will be on Monday 30th January

SANTANA ALSO LIKED HIM

‘I thought that I had known what love was, and had felt wise in my knowledge. I had looked at the world with new eyes and felt a closer kinship to all people. Now it was different; now there was no longer light, solace and pleasure, but storm and flame’.

 A few days ago, having run out of anything decent to read, and feeling a bit on the desperate side, I picked up a minor novel by erstwhile cult author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962, Nobel Prize 1946). Hesse was born in Calw, in the Black Forest in Germany, but spent much of his life in Switzerland, not least because he had to get out of his homeland when hounded by the Nazis for his vocal pacifism (more to the point, the last of his three wives, Ninon Dolbin, was Jewish). Hesse’s mother was raised by missionary parents and his father worked in a theological publishing house, which perhaps explains why Hermann was raised as a Swabian Pietist, an austere Christian sect who favoured Quaker-style discussion groups. As a small boy, he was noted for being wild, unruly and defiant, but by his early teens he was already morbidly sensitive and prone to depression.  Throughout his life, he underwent frequent personal crises and you might say had an awful lot of bad luck. He ran away several times from his spartan seminary schools, and was hospitalised in a mental institution after an attempted suicide. Later he was dispatched to, of all places, a boys’ home in Basel, Switzerland. To add to the woes that would have finished many a lesser man, his first wife Maria Bernoulli to whom he was married 19 years, turned out to be a chronic schizophrenic, also prone to frequent breakdowns, her first in 1916. In the same year, his father died, and with his son Martin very ill, he turned in his burdened state to psychoanalysis, and later met both Sigmund Freud and CG Jung. His fiction, especially Peter Camenzind (1904) was much admired by Freud.

The novel I started to read was Gertrude (1910) and the quote at the top re the incendiary storminess of romantic love is characteristic of its flavour. I had bought it in the Penguin translation in an Athens second hand book shop, and as you’ve guessed, I approached it with a certain sheepish diffidence. Like everyone else born somewhere between 1940 and 1955, I was up to my eyes in Hesse in 1970, meaning my second year at Oxford, where, after giving up on Psychology and Physiology, I was studying Sanskrit and Old Iranian. Apropos which, and amazingly, an Indian Hesse Society has since put his Indian spiritual journey novel Siddhartha into Sanskrit, as well as into modern Hindi and Malayalam. You might note as an ironical aside, that one waspish UK critic, evidently a snooty atheist, referred very unkindly to Siddhartha the questing hero, as ‘Sad Arthur’.

At 19, I and a lot of my friends were lapping up Hesse’s books for numerous reasons. Partly because they were resonantly poetic, if always in lucid and simple prose. In addition, they were deeply if sophisticatedly spiritual (i.e. not like Canadian Jack Kerouac, 1922-1969, who in novels like the 1958 Dharma Bums briskly termed his hero and his hero’s mates as ‘good ol’ Bodhisattvas’). They often had a thematic inclination towards the glamorous Wisdom of the East, meaning Hinduism and Buddhism(which he discovered in 1895) as well the new and exotic findings of Jungian and Freudian psychology.  These novels almost always explored the conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit, of the man (usually) who was self-absorbed, cerebral and austere, and inevitably unfulfilled and depressed as a result. This hypnotising dichotomy was something Hesse had enthusiastically imbibed from Nietzsche (1844-1900) and it is certainly true of the sober, sombre Catholic monastery teacher Narziss in Narziss and Goldmund (1930) a novel set in mediaeval Germany. You don’t need to know much German to twig that those names are highly symbolic, and you will also learn that beautiful failed student Goldmund, who decides that sporting with lovely Gypsy women is more fun than swotting in monasteries, is fetchingly golden of hair as well as of mouth. It is likewise demonstrated rather melodramatically at the very end of his futuristic masterpiece The Glass Bead Game (1943) also known as Magister Ludi. Here Joseph Knecht (ironically named, as Knecht means ‘labourer’) is the head of the reclusive order where somewhere around the 25th century, they play the arcane eponymous game whose rules are never explained, in the curious central European kingdom of Castalia. Forgetting that too much of the hermetic spiritual life might have caused his body to have wilted to a  sadly vulnerable condition, he dives into a freezing lake and immediately has a fatal heart attack. Interestingly and for whatever reason, this erstwhile hippie’s Bible was unobtainable in cheap paperback form in Oxford in 1970, and thus you would observe droves of penniless long-haired students staggering out of Blackwells with the costly and door-stopping hardback, possibly the only one they would ever buy in their lives.

Even more of a cult text in the 60s and 70s was Steppenwolf (1927) a strange and haunting novel about a lonely middle-aged man Harry Haller, crushed by the aridity of his tyrannical spirit, and desperately in need of the vivifying physical. One night he enters an odd kind of nightclub, encounters a mysterious sax player called Pablo, and before long is witness of the Magic Theatre which takes him on a whirlwind psychological trip where he is initiated into the joys of the sensuous and the physical. On publication, Hesse was savaged by certain German critics for its perceived immorality, and some of them even said he was recommending drug use, an accusation he vehemently denied. Even the fastidious Kerouac managed to sneer at Steppenwolf in his 1962 novel Big Sur (which, would you believe it, can be read with academic study notes these days). It was turned into an uneven 1974 film starring Max von Sydow as Haller, though bizarrely both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon had been considered for the same part. It proved to be a financial disaster and is now rarely seen, even though I watched it in a packed and reverential auditorium at the Lancaster Litfest in 1977.

Prior to this, and despite the Nobel Prize, Hesse’s fame had seriously waned by the mid-1950s and he was barely read in Germany, much less outside of it. But thanks to the energetic promotion of a UK and a US guru, namely the expert in Existenzangst Colin Wilson (1931-2013) author of the 1956 The Outsider, and Timothy Leary (1920-1996) academic and psychedelics expert who wrote the 1968 The Politics of Ecstasy, the once controversial Steppenwolf was profitably rediscovered in the 1960s. These two gurus were not the only ones delighted that the Magic Theatre seemed so much like a mind-blowing 5-star acid trip to any discerning 60s reader. A US band named itself after the book, and you can hear them on the sound track of the road movie Easy Rider (1969). Soon in San Francisco there was a Magic Theatre, and in Chicago a Steppenwolf Theatre. As to his other books, guitarist Carlos Santana (born 1947) must have been reading Demian (1919) attentively in his early twenties, as he names one of his albums Abraxas (1970) and on the sleeve, gives the relevant quote from Hesse’s novel. Abraxas, you may  recall, was a Gnostic deity symbolically represented as a Bird who breaks free from the Cosmic Egg, aka the Phenomenal World. Demian was also where the hero Emil Sinclair, friend to his mysterious spiritual daemon Max Demian, hears some beautiful organ music by Buxtehude (1637-1707) in an almost empty church. On a personal note, it was the first time I had heard the strange name of that Danish German organist-composer and he went on to become one of my very favourites. Just listen to his sublime Jubilate Deo sung by angelic counter tenor Alfred Deller, and hold on to your chair as you might find yourself rising 6 inches in the air in unadulterated bliss.

In 1973, aged 22, I had just finished my Sanskrit degree and was about to face the phenomenal world in no uncertain manner, and that was also when Hermann Hesse was one of the most widely read authors on the globe. Fast forward nearly 50 years after my 1970 Hesse surfeit and you find me in 2017 warily and for the first time reading Gertrude, and of course wondering what exactly I would find. I am therefore pleased to assure both you and me, that this is a moving, poignant, wise and excellent novella, and you can happily read it without any deja vu embarrassment at your no doubt excessive youth. And should you now be in your cynical sixties, be aware that part of Hesse’s greatness is the commanding yet gentle authenticity of many of his characters’ subtly evoked and unselfpitying sadness. Below, as example, Kuhn the musician in his mature middle age, speaks of his romantic and professional troubles with absolute confessional candour.

‘When I consider my life objectively, it does not seem particularly happy. Yet I cannot call it really unhappy, despite all my mistakes. After all, it is quite foolish to talk about happiness and unhappiness, for it seems to me I would not exchange the unhappiest days of my life for all the happy ones.’

Kuhn is the solitary only child of moneyed parents, who are able, though not overjoyed about it, to bankroll him through his tenuous career as a musician and composer. His first brush with romance as a schoolboy leads to disaster, after the flirtatious and shallow Liddy, with whom he is besotted, dares him to attempt a lethal downhill ride on a toboggan with her as carefree passenger . After a terrible collision, she escapes more or less unscathed, but he is badly concussed, unconscious for days, and ends up with a lame leg for the rest of his life. His subsequent lack of confidence with all women, and with social life generally, is piquantly understated and extremely convincing rather than easily sentimental, and it occurred to me as I read Gertrude that I have never read any other novel narrated by a reclusive cripple who is painfully ashamed of himself. To compound his personal tragedy, at first his attempts to be a successful violinist are met with derision by his music school teachers, and the best he can hope for is to become a jobbing musician with a minor provincial orchestra. But somehow his years of loneliness and inner tumult work their magic, and Kuhn manages to write a song, a Lied, which his baffled teacher says has something about it, though he is not quite sure what. Luckily or rather fatefully, the manuscript of the song ends up in the hands of the renowned singer Heinrich Muoth, a Svengali-like figure, who befriends him and ultimately enables him to write a complete opera, and find considerable fame.

Muoth is a moody, unpredictable womaniser and a considerable boozer, who bluffly informs Kuhn that he only beats women when they deserve it. He is trailed by an infatuated woman called Lottie, who  confides to an appalled Kuhn that she prefers Heinrich’s blows to being addressed coldly with the formal you (Sie) as is his current habit.  Nonetheless, Hesse is too much of an artist to make Muoth a terse and two-dimensional monster, as witness this deft parrying exchange between the two musicians.

‘He looked at me and his way of looking at people made me feel uncomfortable. He looked me straight in the face, studying it with complete calmness, and his eyes were full of curiosity.

“You are younger than I thought. You must have suffered a great deal.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I cannot talk about it.”

“You don’t need to. I shan’t ask you any questions.” ‘

The turning point in this authoritative study of thwarted love, obviously  drawn from the author’s depths, is when Kuhn is invited to the home of a music-loving businessman, a widower called Imthor. There he meets his daughter, the gentle, sincere and wholly mesmerising Gertrude. She is a fine amateur singer and the two of them get on effortlessly, with a natural and unselfconscious ease, and Kuhn who has never known the romantic tenderness and affection he craves, is soon fatefully in love. Romantic love however is not to be reciprocated, and Gertrude is very discomfited when he declares his feelings, and begs him to stay his friend and nothing more. Inevitably then, when Kuhn invites Muoth to the Imthor house to test out and rehearse more of the novice’s burgeoning brilliance, she falls in love with the womaniser and he for once reciprocates. Despite her father’s anxiety at Muoth’s reputation, and Kuhn’s hesitant and frightened warning of what lies in store for her, the two of them  marry and move away some distance from the family home.

Sure enough, living with a volatile genius takes its toll, meaning Gertrude falls ill with exhaustion, and is obliged to take frequent trips to the paternal home to rest her weary nerves. I won’t spoil things by telling you the shocking ending (Caution. Be warned that the Penguin paperback has no problems about spelling it out on the back cover) but let us say it is open-ended, inconclusive and highly nuanced as all real art is.

The good news is then that Hermann Hesse was, on balance, probably eminently deserving of all the acclaim, and the Nobel Prize at a time when he was touching 70. Despite Timothy Leary and the Easy Rider homage and Jack Kerouac’s envious censure… the author himself is scarcely to be posthumously blamed for his unusually broad and disparate fan base. I for one intend to reread all about Harry Haller, and will look once again at the epic Magister Ludi (for even austere Hesse saw genuine art of any kind as ‘playfulness’ or more jargonishly ‘ludic’).

The lesson for me now that I am all of 66, is not to disdain my naïve but sincere past, nor to be ashamed of once being 19, and though it is commonplace now to deride the Sixties and everything about them, that is I believe a cruelly myopic and distorting lie. The Sixties gave us the Beatles, the Stones, Frank Zappa, the birth of revolutionary electric jazz, feminism, the contraceptive pill, uncensored TV drama for uncensored mature adults (not least.anarchic Joe Orton and angry Dennis Potter), the Wolfenden report, the rage of the world’s students against the folly and wickedness of waging a napalm war against helpless Vietnamese peasants… and a hell of a lot more.

If the Sixties hadn’t happened, believe you me, we would still be in the laissez faire Stone Age that the current smirking vaudeville acts also known as world leaders, gleefully rampant as they are all over the frightened world, are striving to inflict once more upon us.

ONLINE DATING LAID BARE

This post appears a little early. The next one will be Saturday 14th January

ONLINE DATING LAID BARE

FREE SPIRIT [a pen name, as she is seemingly not a Seminole nor a Cree squaw, but hails instead from picturesque Stow on the Wold]

-I am 62, exceptionally young-looking for my age, and am seeking a man aged 55 to 70

-I am very attractive

-I am full-bodied

-I am an average mingler

No, you’re right, that couldn’t possibly describe me too, your modest Kythnos blogger. But for the record I am considered by my 3 discerning admirers (only one a cat) to be all of the above, apart from the disclosures found on lines 1 and 3. As for candid confessions, I too would like in meditative moments to be thought full-bodied, and even voluptuous in a masculine way, but you can’t have everything in this begrudging world, can you…?

I am into all of the usual stuff (Hatha Yoga, Pilates, Radio 4, BBC4, BBC2, Ian McEwan) and enjoy a good natter, and am happy to share my life with others who have extended their genetic endowment. Like a Smartie, I am bright and shiny on the outside, but yummy and soft on the inside, and I will bring into your life all the lovingness you’ve been looking for. There will be some challenges no doubt, as you will no doubt challenge me too, and thus the two of us will continue to grow together.

I know you will bear the scars of your own battles. I know you will have an old soul, and your wisdom will be hard-earned. You will be proud of who you are in this world.

 End of foregoing extract, from a genuine dating website, one based in the UK and aimed supposedly at the educated and professional market. ‘Market’ being a telling noun, as there is obviously very big money in running a national nay international dating website, even though remarkably there are still quite a lot of sites, in the UK at least, that are free. Moreover, just in case you think I have embroidered the above for a cheap and heartlessly vicarious laugh, I need to stress that it is an echt and authentic extract, and I have not invented nor doctored anything.

Meanwhile the source for the surprising fact that there are still free dating websites, is my old mate Willy Prickett from Cockermouth, Cumbria (resonant name and address, eh, gals, and I didn’t make that up either) who has been through half a dozen of them (free sites I mean). Willy, an artist who retrained in his sixties as a joiner, believes in frugality, partly because he only charges £6 an hour to beat the wily and very skilled immigrant Cumbrian Poles who charge £7 for their skills, and, as a consequence Willy is always skint. A year ago over the phone this impoverished joiner helpfully sketched for me his ingenious and economical dating strategy, within a radius of 50 miles of Lake District-fringe Cockermouth. He would typically meet Mystery Woman for a preliminary coffee only, no more, on Date 1. Then possibly 3 more cautiously investigative coffees for Dates 2,3,4, and thus calculate the lie of the land apropos her money, moodiness, carnality and the ability to make him laugh and vice versa. Oh, and looks, fuck yes, looks, nearly forgot that bugger, man, a can of worms if ever there was. They can lie with their photos you know, they can doctor them with photobloodyshop. Well, to be honest, I tried it myself, but fuck it, I only looked worse, absolutely atrocious, I frightened myself, never mind her. Then dates 5 and 6, customarily a couple of romantic walks on the Cumbrian or South Scots hills, which obviously cost nowt apart from the picnics, which she, local lass April or Hazel, or Morag from Dumfries is bound to volunteer, cos one look at me and you can see what kind of shitty sandwiches I would try to knock up, oops not very kind phrasing.  Plus, should it be fine weather, test out the bare arse carnality quotient, in some remote dell, nook, col or cosy climber’s shack, without the embroilment of being entangled by seeing the inside of her house, nor her of mine. I would need to clean and hoover my house for at least a week, all the shite on my overalls and feet from work, and I can’t be arsed if she looks in the flesh like a horse’s backside, can I?

Willy Prickett is evidently at the opposite existential and ideological pole to Free Spirit. With his can of worms, he is surely representative of the apposite worm’s eye view, meaning he is no idealist, the latter being if you think about it, a type of bird’s eye point of view. Free Spirit is all too clearly a blatant idealist, whereas Willy is a fearless pragmatist, divorced and in his view betrayed by the treacherous, adulterous love of his life, Janice, who was also his childhood sweetheart. As for me, the only comment I’d like to make re F S from Stow on the Wold is that she is seemingly an unusual mix of the exalted and high-flown (Challenge, Old Soul, Wisdom, Endowment, Growth) and the homely, and some might argue, a little on the regressive childlike side (Good Natter, Smarties, Yummy, Soft-Centred).

I read her CV over the phone to Willy, to see what he thought, and after a puzzlingly long pause, he muttered:

“I’ve known three manky women who wanted me to extend something, but it wasn’t my genes. How do you make it bigger?”

“Easy. With a kind of fancy suction pump…”

“Eh?Nah, man. Your genetic ‘endowment’, endowment as in insurance policy. How can you make it bigger?”

I had to rack my brains to translate such semantic obscurity, for myself as much as for Willy.

“I think in Free Spirit’s terms, that to realise your potential as a human being, you need to stand underneath the fertilising metaphorical rain of your Environment, Willy. Meaning throughout life’s journey, you make the most of the best available environments, in the sense of the best of life’s possibilities, the best and most fecund and enveloping ambiences, wherever you find them. So, Willy, in your case you need to attune yourself as best you can to the power of Healing Nature, to Education, to Spiritual Things…all of which should be your favoured environments.”

“But wait. Didn’t this lasso-o say she was spiritual but not religious?”

I snorted. “That’s the cut and paste formula they all use on dating sites. What she probably means is she’s dreamy and mystical in private, and often has nice warm, ethereal feelings in her lower stomach and possibly her bowels. But she obviously doesn’t like attending churches or Quaker meeting halls or anything organised. She’s a Lone Spirit as well as a Free Spirit, you see.”

“Fuck,” animadverted Willy. “Old Soul? Old Soul? Or Old Arsehole?

But that wasn’t all the Stow on the Wold woman had to say, and to recommend.

Creativity is a biggie for me…

And a good Rioja makes me happy

To elaborate. I don’t yet know my True Name. And I wonder what Name are you known by, on this beautiful planet of ours?

 Where will we meet?

And in the whirl of the Dance known as Life, will the music fade, the earth become distant, and will Time itself stand still?

 Willy Prickett sighed. “I think I’m right with her rattling on about ‘biggies’. So what do you think this Free Spirit’s True Name is? She doesn’t even know what the bugger is, so she says.”

I threw back at him faster than the speed of light. “Prudence.”

Profound incomprehension and it was rain-soaked Cockermouth incomprehension at that.

“How do you know?”

“The word endowment is the give-away, Willy. She wants a good old-fashioned insurance policy. Underneath the restless questing free spirit, she’s a quaint little old gal who likes a good old natter and kiddiwink Smarties, and the adult version known as a good Rioja. She is full-bodied just like a Rioja, you see, and she teasingly, seductively lets the men know as much. It’s all of a piece, son.”

The joiner whistled. “Fuck me stiff. And fancy that! Hm. So what do you think my True Name is, man?”

I bounced back cheerfully. “Chastity. Though of course that’s usually a woman’s name…”

“You mongrel Cumbrian Greek bastard! It’s not for want of trying I’m chaste. And I’ve never drunk so much fucking cappucino in my life. D’you know,after a few months, you get a kind of permanent milky scale on the roof of your mouth with it?”

I grunted. “You should buy them a slap-up meal. On Date 1, that is, and hang the expense. I’ve read the academic research on dating, and women say they really hate stingy men, they think it’s such a turn off and so unsexy. You’re a classic See You Next Tuesday of a Cumbrian Curmudgeon, Willy.”

I could hear him thinking up taunting counter-obscenities. “Listen, I’ll tell you a wiser formula for pleasing women than that. Most women say they don’t expect a guy who is a miracle, but just one who is Sane and Solvent and Isn’t Really Bad Looking, i.e. not an oil painting, but neither are they plug ugly.” He drew breath, impressed by his own unusual eloquence. “And two little probing questions for you, old smartarse. How did you know about the suction pumps for extending Arthur…and while we’re at it, what is your True Name, Mr Cumbrian in Exile?”

Again, inspiration was instantaneous. “Felix.”

The phone vibrated in my hands at his passion. “Felix? Ballocks to fucking Felix! Just cos they call you Cat Man out there on Kythnos. Felix the bloody Cat.”

I answered smoothly. “Nothing to do with cats. If I didn’t have any cats, my true name would still be Felix. It means happy, Willy. It’s Latin for happy, and what better True Name than that?”

“Pah. And how did you happen to know about the cock extender being a suction pump?”

I sighed and also smirked.“General knowledge Willy. Everyone apart from you knows that…”