WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD £30 MILLION?

The next post will be on or before Saturday 29th April

WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD £30 MILLION?

Years ago I was reading a book by a psychotherapist, where he said that he sometimes asked his clients to jot down what they would like to be written on their epitaphs/obituaries by those who knew them, once they had snuffed it and departed to another realm that is. Hopefully he meant such comments to be penned by their sympathetic friends rather than their unrestrained enemies (‘tight bastard, no sense of humour, ugly as sin, never liked him’) but obviously it is a good way for the therapist to assess what kind of integral self-worth a person might or might not have, and how they imagine other people see them…and possibly how much sunny wishful thinking is at stake (‘she’s the most profound person I’ve ever met, a true and touching polymath, incredibly resourceful in bed, almost as much as me in fact, and a dazzling DIY woman to boot’). Always game as they say, I took 5 minutes and tried this exercise myself and after discarding what my putative enemies might slanderously write about me, I realised that my good friends back in West Cumbria (I last lived there 1983-1987) and North Cumbria (1987-2013) far from saluting my hard-won literary achievements, would probably go on exclusively about the sumptuous meals I had regularly regaled them with. I taught myself to cook some 40 years ago and became ever more ambitious as an ethnic vegetarian chef, so whenever Annie and I had friends round I would always push the boat out, and take all day to prepare a banquet. I doubted my epitaph would have anything on it about any hilariously funny comic novels, for my dear pals would probably have forgotten all of their plots and even their titles (Jazz And Such and Such, Wassacallit’s Favourite Wotsit). On the other hand, there might well be passionate and salivating comments on the Armenian stuffed courgettes, Bahrein pearl divers’ pilau and Egyptian cauliflower in tahina that their taste buds still could savour from somewhere around 1986 in Cleator Moor down west, or Iranian apple dolmas, Azeri ginger and sesame pilau, and Greek whole leeks stewed in coriander seeds and red wine that they had guzzled down in a rapture in North Cumbria back in 1995.

Apropos illuminating imaginative exercises, these days I am doing some one to one teaching of English to local Kythniots, as well as continuing to teach fiction to anglophone writers who come here specially for that purpose. The Greeks learning English, whatever their level, need practice in conversation, and so as not to make it too tedious and vapid a chore, I sometimes set them amiable conversational tasks such as:

-Describe your perfect day. You have a day off work, you have 1000 euros pocket money, and you can be anywhere in the world, on your own, and free of family. How would you spend your day ideally?

 -You are given 30 million euros tomorrow to do with exactly as you please. How would you set about spending it?

 Kostas the bearded and cheerful 30-year old waiter who hails from Athens and wants to improve his English to help him with the tourists in summer, is what would be called a very steady lad back in England. Even though he has no current girlfriend, women obviously like his company as he is always to be seen smiling sagely and sipping coffee with the best looking of the bank workers, nurses, port policewomen and so on. Once in a blue moon he goes out on a boozing razzle with the lads, but most of his free evenings he restricts himself to a sober maximum of two beers in his favourite upmarket bar at the top of the bay. I asked him as part of our conversation practice how many beers he would drink if it was his birthday or Name Day or his stag night and he was out with the boys on the bottle. I expected him to say a dozen or even 20 at the very least, but this thoughtful and circumspect waiter hesitated for only a moment before saying:

‘Three…’

A fifty per cent increase in his bacchanalian exertions, so reasonable enough perhaps? I tell you this only because when asked to confide what he would do with his 30 million, he first of all looked wise and also rather furtive and declared that he would stash most of it in the bank immediateley. Bizarrely he wouldn’t give up his waiter’s job in Kythnos even though as you can imagine with inclusive bed and board it does not provide him with any luxuries, and even many of the staples as sold in extortionate Greek island supermarkets. Like all decent young men, he would give a ton of his fortune to his Mum and Dad, and also buy himself a luxury 2nd home pad in Vouliagmeni, a smart Athenian seaside annexe past Glyfada (where the old airport used to be) and also where Barack Obama was to seen in cavalcade driving through the cordoned off streets at the end of last year). Vouliagmeni is home to some of the wealthiest Greeks, and they have sumptuous 6 bedroom villas with exquisite garden sculptures and an enormous pool and all the rest. Kostas revealed that he only wanted 2 bedrooms, and saw no point in frittering his dosh away on a swimming pool when the bloody sea was only 10 yards away. He would buy 2 huge Harley Davidson motorbikes though (to keep each other company and ward off vehicular loneliness?) and I wondered if he would rev them up vengefully to disturb the hitherto well barricaded ship owner magnates living next door.  The modesty of only 2 bedrooms confounded me though and I could only assume one would be for him and his hoped for girlfriend and the other for his visiting Mum and Dad, for it ever there was a doting family lad it was filial and ever modest Kostas.

I now have to admit that the Describe Your Perfect Day exercise was not my own idea but filched from the wonderful and extremely venerable London Magazine (1732-to the present), not the current pallid version, but the matchless one under the editorship of the poet Alan Ross (1922-2001). Under Ross the LM used to be the only place in the world that would take a piece about obscure foreign writers (in my case I wrote about Egyptian Albert Cossery and Vaudoise Swiss, CF Ramuz). It was also where Ross very occasionally did an unpretentious literary interview with short and succinctly to the point questions, which believe you me are glaringly thin on the ground these days, given that much of the time they turn into smirking hagiographies with the simpering interviewer basking in the reflected glory of the genius holding forth. One of his questions to poet, railways fan, and grand old man of letters John Betjeman (1906-1984) was then, how would he spend his ideal day. Betjeman started off by saying he would like a whole afternoon in a 2nd hand bookshop, and this is where I step neatly into the frame with my own idea of my favourite day.

Instead of dallying in say palmy Dagenham or salubrious Auchtermuchty, I would choose to stay in Thiseio, the loveliest part of Athens, in that very central small hotel with superb views of the Parthenon and Acropolis. There all the welcoming  and unfussy staff are nice and young, late teens to early 30s, no grouching and scowling old buggers which I can assure you makes all the difference, even making the air around you as you sit there in the lounge, visibly lighter. They offer a tantalising cooked breakfast with e.g. quality non-aqueous non-snotty scrambled egg, and with first class coffee and fresh fruit, and they even have a hypnotising machine that guzzles up oranges and turns them into fresh juice. Thence, well stuffed to the gills, I would depart and walk past all the umpteen craft stalls with competitively priced and beautiful jewellery, as well as stamp and coin stalls and their sombre owners, and with half a dozen motley street dogs, mostly huge ones, hanging around as respected adjutants and mascots, and who look as if, should you ask them the price of things, they would definitely growl you the answer.

After purchasing Ione and Jan the most splendid silver ear rings, I would move on down to Ermou, and on a variation of John Betjeman spend an entire morning trailing the many 2nd hand bookshops for their considerable and fascinatingly haphazard English stock. Peckish by then I would drop into the spacious Indian restaurant where I would have my regular of a massive vegetable thali tray and a couple of glasses of Thealos Tis Yi, the finest red wine in the universe and yes indubitably and astoundingly it is Greek. Staggering forth with bursting embonpoint,  I would spend the entire afternoon in Monastiraki, much of it in that colossal and remarkable used CD, cassette and vinyl emporium, strong on jazz, blues, rock and world music,  and with boxes of new and  bargain classical CDs (6 for 5 euros. Now that’s what I call a bargain, not least because there is bugger all else you can buy in Greece for 83 cents). Further down there is an excellent art shop sells vintage posters of old Greek ads for Coca Cola, Greek coffee, retsina, ouzo etc. Many of them are highly suggestive and saucy, albeit innocent 1920s style, and like all who relish the risque seaside postcards of Donald McGill (1875-1962), that suits me down to the ground. By then it would be about 6pm, meaning an early dinner would be in order and only one perfect place would do me on my perfect day. Back to the same Indian restaurant then, with the same gigantic and flavoursome thali and the same Thealos Tis Yi and I forgot to mention the really beautiful young Greek waitress lassies who add a singular and alluring non-culinary savour to the whole experience.

Deep down you see for all I regularly abominate and mock my native county, I am alas an unconscionable echt West Cumbrian through and through. The most accurate definition, being that they like doing the same pleasurable thing over and over again, and without the slightest variation.

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