WHEN EVERYTHING COMES TO A STOP

The next post will be on or before Friday, 31st March

WHEN EVERYTHING COMES TO A STOP

As I write this there has been no internet here in the Kythnos port for about 20 hours, and it surely does strange things to you. Aside from knowing I can’t check my emails, nor look at my blog to see who is reading it, and from where (I clocked up firsts with the Ivory Coast and Serbia recently), nor read the BBC news website to check on the cruel carnage at Westminster, London, nor consult Accuweather re next week’s Kythnos forecast, bizarrely it makes me crave for the net connection even if I wasn’t going to use it, a kind of notional or redundant addiction you might call it. Ironically, when I’m over in the UK or spending a few days in Athens, I never take my laptop with me, nor do I have a phone that has internet, and yet it bothers me not one iota to be minus all of the above. From Athens, I usually keep in touch with friends and loved ones via texts, whereas gawking back in some amazement to 30 years ago, I suppose if I’d been living in Greece but heading home for a spell, I’d have written a letter advising them in Blighty I was soon to be on my way, and would meet them at Carlisle railway station forecourt, third bollard on the right, at 3pm sharp next Friday 21st. Though on second thoughts, I might optionally have refined that by buying a phone card and making a  superior verbal contact, but that being the case I have to do my chronological sums here in order to be accurate. I who am usually fanatically flawless when it comes to pinpointing what month of what year  I did x, y, z, now need to roll back those wonderful Greek island and connoisseur Alentejo, Portugal sequences, and recall when phone cards became common in places like Andros, Folegandros, Beja, Elvas and Evora. I know that in 1982 when Annie and I travelled across Europe to Turkey by bus and hitching, we had no notion of such a thing, so that, inconceivable as it is these days, I didn’t ring my folks up for a whole month, and until we’d got back to London. But in 1986 when Annie’s Dad was in a Cumbrian hospital with worrying circulation problems (for us and his wife that is, he didn’t give a damn himself, and informed us cheerfully that he was taking rat poison to thin his blood) we did I remember use a card to ring Annie’s anxious Mum all the way from Crete.

Even worse than an aborted internet is the nightmare known as a power cut, though of course the two brutally overlap if you have no phone possessing wifi. When the power goes, you cannot play your precious and lifesaving CDs (yes, yes, I know, they are pitifully retro, but bugger that and stored back home in Cumbria I also have copious LPs, and here in Kythnos both umpteen cassettes and a portable player kindly purchased by daughter Ione who is one of the few who does not mock at my obsolete technology). I have music playing all the time when I’m in my house, and particularly like to hearken to sonorous ECM electric jazz at 7.00 am when drinking coffee and talking with cogence to my attentive cats. Some of my approximately 500 CDs  I rediscover after forgetting about them for months or even years. I then tend to play nothing else for the whole week, a recent example being a boxed set of the wondrous UK jazz rock band Soft Machine, and especially the albums Third (1970) and Fourth (1971). Both of these are works of unremitting genius, for they are phenomenally tightly structured and tightly harmonised which leads to the aesthetic inverse of a paradoxical liberation, added to which as a bonus gift and inter alia, they are full to brimming over with dare I say it (yes, bugger it, I believe I dare), pulsating sex and sinusoidal joy.

Minus electricity you cannot have your music and you cannot cook a gourmand feast nor make a pungent coffee, 3 forms of complementary and accretory 3rd degree torture for which there is no applicable Hague convention. Worse still is the extremely curious state of mind or more accurately a numbly frozen form of being that a power cut can inflict upon you, a sort of uneasy intimation of existential alienation as happens to the hero in the novel Nausea (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), someone who knew more about Being (L’Etre et le Neant, published 1943), and Phenomenology than most of us Anglo-Saxon triflers do. I can clearly recall some 30 years ago when Annie and I were living in Cleator Moor, Cumbria, a power cut that lasted the best part of the day. She was out at work, lucky old her, so only caught the hideous tail end of it. I was busy with mailing out copies of Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996) of which I was founder-editor and which believe it or not I sent out by the pre-IT means of handwritten filing cards and handwritten addresses on the envelopes. I was doggedly transcribing from about 700 cards, and was half way through the foreign subscribers,  when the treacherous power went. Luckily it was daylight albeit grey and wintry, or I might have been mad enough to try and do the same by odorous candlelight with Annie after a hard day of being a social work trainer, as my selfless junior scribe. At any rate, possibly the combination of a pitiless Herculean labour combined with everything having come to a stop which is what in practical and unpoetic terms a power cut amounts to, led me to feel strangely bereft, unhinged, not right, not happy, not even human so it felt (I present this enigma for what it is worth to you probing, inquisitive and discerning readers out there, I just thought that I would take a liberty and run it past you…)

Guess what else happens in somewhere like rural Cumbria UK, when you have a power cut, and especially when it is winter and you are sick of eating ice cold cheese and pickles and salad, no matter how much exquisite red wine you slosh down to cope with it? If you have any enterprise and indeed any money, you go out to a pub unaffected by the blip and you treat yourself and dine there royally. That is exactly what we did in the fabled Christmas of 2000 when much of NE Cumbria was blanked out for days on end, but alas it turned out to be a cruel let down, of which more later. Around that period I happened to have some worrying conversations with an idealistic couple who lived on a remote Debatable Lands farm, and from which they ran residential courses. They said with stern yet twinkling conviction that it was wonderful to be sat there by fire light and candlelight playing non-electrical games with your kids and feeling such a sense of good old fashioned familial closeness and that elusive thing known as rustic simplicity. Tell that to Milady Ione then aged 11 who had played happily with her gizmo toys and games on Christmas Day when there was power, but after scowling her way through half of powerless Boxing Day she decided to cut her losses and told us that she wanted to go and stay with the Blisses for a couple of days. This was indeed a very bright and praiseworthy strategy on her part. They not only lived 5 miles off in an area unaffected by the power cut, they had 5 lively young daughters aged 2 to 15, one of them Mary being Ione’s close schoolpal. There was only one theoretical objection though, and it wasn’t anything on the lines of, how dare you desert your oh so dear Mum and Dad on Boxing Day, just because there is only cold food, no music and no telly? No, assuredly it was none of that…it was because the Blisses were Jehovah’s Witnesses and of course they are famous for the fact they do not celebrate Christmas.

But Ione knew more than we did, namely that there is no law against taking your posh gizmo toys to a Jehovah’s Witness family on Boxing Day, as she wouldn’t after all be carting an enbaubled Christmas tree or secreting a Yuletide log or a posy of holly or of soppy old mistletoe. So off she went and had a great non-festive season and after we had dropped her off, we drove down to the pub in the little market town and looked forward to gorging something hot and tasty. I ordered vegetable curry and chapatis, and Annie plumped for haddock and chips or blatant comfort food as she put it. She needed, she said, naïve and simple culinary comfort, when we unfortunates couldn’t watch our Christmas videos or listen to the CDs we’d given each other, in her case a bunch of Joni Mitchells and  a couple of haunting albums by Old Blind Dog, the remarkable Aberdonian folk band.

I set noisily upon my aromatic Indian feast which despite a notable excess of cinnamon wasn’t all that revolting, and Annie took one rapturous bite of her gorgeous looking and oh so golden haddock. Whereupon her beautiful face froze and that verb was bizarrely accurate in her case, and this time it was nothing akin to my power-cut induced existential petrifaction as described above.

“Ice…” she gasped with profound disgust. “There’s bloody ice inside the fish!”

Aha. Oh yeah? Happy Christmas everyone. They hadn’t defrosted it thoroughly, or more likely hadn’t kept the dear old microwave on long enough. Two months later the uneasy looking couple who ran that pub decamped, wisely omitting to leave any forwarding address, and you could clairvoyantly foresee as much when you tasted the overwhelming cinnamon, and when your teeth got stuck on the ice..

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