The next post will be on or before Monday July 10th


‘I do not know why she should have felt so friendly to me. It may be that she thought I understood her better than I was able to do. The most precise of her sayings seemed always to me to have enigmatical prolongations vanishing somewhere beyond my reach. I am reduced to suppose that she appreciated my attention and my silence. The attention she could see was quite sincere, so that the silence could not be suspected of coldness. It seemed to satisfy her. And it is to be noted that if she confided in me it was clearly not with the expectation of receiving advice, for which indeed she never asked.’

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)

Reading prose as accomplished as the above makes me dizzy with both admiration and with a sense of vaporous but enjoyable vertigo. From start to finish of this paragraph there is a sonorous and rhythmic felicity which partly comes from the famous austerity and nuanced simplicity of Conrad’s prose. Recall that Conrad (1857-1924) was an ethnic Pole, born in the Polish Ukraine, writing in English and that he did not find the transformation easy. He collaborated with the long-suffering Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) in composing some of his works and drove the pair of them half mad as Ford comically describes in some of his memoirs, struggling for what seemed the unattainable but never willing to give in. For what it’s worth my 2 favourite bits of phrasing in the above are the august but precise ‘enigmatical prolongations’ (and the business of their permanent elusiveness) and ‘reduced to suppose’. The latter is an extremely unusual use of ‘reduced’ (literally ‘reduced to the condition of supposing’…) and would more usually read ‘obliged’.

The novel is the harrowing story of 2 Russian ladies Mrs Haldin and her daughter Nathalie, radical liberals living in exile in Geneva, Switzerland, aka Little Russia. They are visited by a tense and unhappy young man called Razumov who they believe knows something of the last days of their son and indeed must logically have been an ally and comrade of his. Young Haldin had assassinated a Tsarist state official and had turned to Razumov for protection. Instead of which in a blind panic he had shopped him to the state police and within a short time Haldin had been executed by hanging. Neither his mother or his sister know of this betrayal, nor do any of the Russian exiles in Geneva, counting on which the Tsarist secret police had ordered Razumov to go to Geneva and spy on the 2 women and on their treacherous circle. That circle included the legendary radical, Peter Ivanovitch, The Wild Beast, a bombastic, insensitive and insufferable monologuist, who had achieved the impossible and escaped from his terrible Siberian prison, then miraculously found his epic and endless way to freedom in exile.

Where Conrad excels is in portraying the terror-stricken egotism of Razumov, who thanks to his treachery has no friends left anywhere in the world and cannot think of anyone’s anguish other than his own. He has cowardly betrayed a young radical and sent him to his death and now he is the hapless pawn of the Tsarist secret police who can do what they like with him. Meanwhile he is incapable of feeling any pity towards grief-stricken Nathalie and her mother, an old woman who already shows signs of losing her mind as she is convinced that her son is somehow still alive. Here is Razumov ranting obscurely at the novel’s narrator, a Genevan now in his 50s, who was raised in Russia and is fully fluent in the language.

‘He approached his face with fiercely distended nostrils close to mine, so suddenly that I had the greatest difficulty in not starting back. “You ask me! I suppose it amuses you, all this. Look here! I am a worker. I studied. Yes, I studied very hard. There is intelligence here.” (He tapped his forehead with his finger-tips). “Don’t you think a Russian may have sane ambitions? Yes – I had even prospects. Certainly! I had. And now you see me here abroad, everything gone, lost sacrificed. You see me here – and you ask! You see me, don’t you? – sitting before you.”

Yet for all his genius Conrad sometimes does unintendedly clumsy, even comic things with his characters. I was reading the novel sat outside Makis’s Ouzeri in Piraeus while waiting for the boat to Kythnos last Friday, when suddenly I started to laugh immoderately. Joseph Conrad definitely wouldn’t have wanted me to laugh at what he had written, for it was at a very tense and dramatic part of the novel where the police have been to Razumov’s apartment and turned everything upside down. When he returns home, there is his fretful old landlady, commonsense and no nonsense personified.

‘She was a short, thick, shapeless woman with a large yellow face wrapped up everlastingly in a black woollen shawl. “Kirylo Sidorovitch – little father – what have you been doing? And such a quiet young man, too! The police are just gone this moment after searching your rooms…What is the good of mixing yourself up with these Nihilists? Do give over, little father. They are unlucky people…Or is it that some secret enemy has been calumniating you, Kirylo Sidorovitch. The world is full of black hearts and false denunciations nowadays. There is much fear about.”

Very true prophetic landlady for you have foreseen Josef Stalin to a tee, the same who got into his virtuoso never to be equalled mass murderer’s stride about a decade after Conrad was dead. But all the same which is the glaring odd man out in that landlady’s dialogue above? What word would the yellow-faced black-shawled lady never have used in a million years?

That’s right, it’s ‘calumniating’. Uneducated old landladies have never even heard of it, much less used it. That is an example of the genius Conrad distracted for a while and putting his own words into a mouth that quite simply would never have known them. And yes I know that he was a Pole writing in English about an old woman talking in Russian, and yet…

It is gratifying to know that even consummate geniuses have their occasional human flaws. Isn’t it?



The next post will be on or before Saturday 1st July


These days if you are a Manhattan call girl or similar, there’s surely a fair chance you will have a decorous Facebook page and Linked In account to advertise your professional services and competitive or exclusive rates. However they do things rather differently in the more dilapidated backstreets of Kypseli, Athens, where 2 days ago I beheld a scrawled message on a grubby wall: ANGELA (HER PHONE NUMBER) FUCK 10 EUROS MASSAGE. It was as you see in Roman script not Greek and the f-word, one of the few linguistic universals (along with ‘OK’, ‘Number 1’and ‘No Problem’) did not need translation nor did the word massage. It wasn’t clear whether the latter was to be included as preliminary to the former, and if it was not, it was not priced. I felt a fair amount of pity as I read this economy advert, thinking that the woman was selling herself for so little, economic crisis notwithstanding, the price of a cheap breakfast plus a cheap lunch with cheap wine to keep her going perhaps. Then I was doubly confounded when I got back to Kythnos as Maria of the Paradisos Cafe hazarded that it might simply be a malicious message written by some Athenian trying to embarrass and humiliate someone not a prostitute against whom they had an active grudge. Though I doubt that somehow. If it had been a Greek trying to embarrass a Greek it would surely have been in Greek not English and it would certainly have been in Greek script not in Roman.

Further down the road and for light relief was an exotic looking shop full of wigs and hair strands and costly gels and creams, called FATTY’S COSMETIC PLACE. The proprietor was visible through the window and she was a very handsome Middle Eastern looking lady of about 50 who was not at all portly. Like many an Athenian she would use English not understanding its meaning or its intended allusion so that you had a classic example of an attempt at sophistication intended to win custom but which ought to have induced the very opposite. ‘Fatty’ in English is of course nearly always pejorative or at best is patronisingly affectionate. The lady inside the cosmetics shop could only have thought it a sonorous abbreviation for her likely name of Fatima or the Moroccan variant Fatoma, and I seriously wondered for a whole 2 minutes if I should go in and warn her against her well-meant but notionally disastrous marketing ploy. For had they understood what the English word ‘fatty’ meant surely the subconscious message to any Greek going in there was that they themselves would end up fat, bloated and obese by cosmetic association.

That same evening there was a third example of brazen public declaration in the form of a cheerful young Greek lad of about 17 waltzing down a busy pedestrianised street in Metaksourgeio with his didactic message for the astonished world. As they say in West Cumbria, he had a grin like a bag of chips, as well as a smart white t-shirt, on which in English it read LOVE IS PAIN, which almost at once made me think of the 1st Noble Truth of Buddhism, namely ‘All is Woe’, or in Pali, Sabbam dukkam.

Where to start with the ironies? He looked as if he had never known any pain in his life, unless perhaps it were to be short of cigarettes at the end of the week and he was required to badger his Mum into a sub or perhaps I mean a stub. Assuming he had ever been in love with a young girl, which seemed to me only a remote possibility given the artlessly egotistical spring and bounce in his step, his notion of romantic pain would be if she ever waxed peevish about the amount of time he spent on Playstation. Once again, I felt the urge to go across and accost someone and in this case his gnomic message with what I think is one of the finest short poems ever written, the Blason d’Amour

Love is in Latin writ Amor

It spelleth Death to Mortal Man

And Mortal Pain that goeth before

And Mourning, Pain and Grieving Sore

For Time doth not return again

Not that I subscribe to that most dolorous if beautiful sentiment, much less to the young lad’s minatory t-shirt. As far as I’m concerned love isn’t pain at all, or at least it does not need to be. For to parody a Zen koan, love is what you find at the end of the supermarket checkout on a late Friday night when suddenly your eyes cross and you find yourself to your amazement winking at the woman you have been timidly fancying for the last 5 years and bugger me she goes even better and winks back hilariously at you and actually clicks her tongue like a waggish lady Hottentot.

After the t shirt came the fish taverna. It was my last night in Athens and I decided I would treat myself to some expensive fresh fish and I could see a tempting menu of red mullet, swordfish, sea bass, sea bream and the like. The place boasted that it had been going since 1962 when the proprietor who looked about my age would be 11 or 12, so that we can assume it must once have been his Dad’s place. He was a rather odd-looking man this peer of mine. He was very pale and with sparse curly hair and a look of quiet exasperation crossed with saturnine incomprehension of all things that came within his dazed purview. He kept going inside to listlessly harangue a blond good-looking woman of mid-twenties with thick red lipstick who could only have been his daughter. She impressed me very much as she was totally unmoved by his castigations, and kept on smoking cigarette after cigarette with a look not of distraction but of nothing whatever. She didn’t look as if she was waiting for anyone, she didn’t look as if she was likely to aid Dad in his business by ad hoc waitressing or indeed ad hoc anything for she was not a one to vainly go ad to any conceivable hoc. She didn’t look pissed off, nor did she look anything as animated as happy, rather she looked as if she existed and nothing more and did not find that reducedness depressing nor a cause of endless self examination. She also looked as if she had no grand ambitions whatever, not even the most modest and inconsequential of personal plans, not even for the next imponderable 50 years much less the next stony and immovable half hour.

Outside and by way of a surreal antithesis, another old lad in his mid 60s with oddly quiffed and disarrayed hair and with an extremely morose and puzzled countenance was sat at a table opposite me, staring earnestly into space. He ordered no food nor did he look as if he wished to be served any drink nor did the proprietor solicit his custom nor even look in his direction. Instead he just sat staring at his hands as if wondering why they were there, and he did this for the whole of the time I was eating my posh fish dinner. Meanwhile I ordered melanouri, a very tasty type of sea bream which was done well enough though with at least a pint of olive oil which not even I could mop up with the entire loaf of bread the pale-faced proprietor gave me. It was the accessories that did for me though, as I wanted chips with my bream and my white-faced peer refused those and with nil accommodating expression said it was patates sto fourno or nothing.  That meant potatoes baked in the oven with lemon juice and oregano which is nice enough if done well, and I do genuinely believe in his favour that the proprietor did probably make his as good as anyone else’s. However, before he plonked it on the table he decided to add his own favourite embellishment, and this happened to be ground and pungent black pepper. But alas he added so incontinently his adored condiment that it looked like it had been sprinkled with tropical bird shit, and when I tasted the potatoes all I could savour was burning pepper, and the lemon and the oregano fought fruitlessly to make their presence felt.

However, being so English I was unable to leave the patates untouched, which was what I would have liked had I had the proper sense of truly European self-assertion. I forced down about half of it and downed about a litre of water, and I even gave him a one euro tip when really he the frustrated father of a bone idle daughter should have been paying me for that pointless insult with his incendiary black pepper.


The next post will be on or before Wednesday June 28th


‘Oh they never look at anything that folks like we can understand. On’y foreign tongues used in the days of the Tower of Babel, when no two families spoke alike. They read that sort of thing as fast as a night hawk will whir…Yes ’tis a serious-minded place. Not but there’s wenches in the streets o’ nights…You know I suppose that they raise pa’sons there like radishes in a bed?’

Jude The Obscure                            

Thus speaks the carter to the young boy Jude Fawley who is obsessed with Christminster (aka Oxford), hallowed seat of learning and Anglicanism. It is worth noting the irony that the carter had never actually been there and is only giving hearsay or should we say in scholarly terms, is using secondary sources. Jude is the hero of Jude The Obscure (1895), one of the finest novels by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) which I have just read for the third time in 40 years. It created a considerable scandal when it was published as it has a principal female character orating eloquently about the torment that marriage and convention can bring upon an independent woman. It also has one of the most notoriously grotesque and harrowing scenes in 19th century fiction where a child murders his younger siblings and then commits suicide inside a wardrobe. Hardy in later forewords wrote drily of the castigation and humiliation he received, and cites one interesting lady who while incendiary in her criticism, added that she would also quite like to get to know him.

In imaginative prose terms, the most endearing thing is the pungent dialogue of the sly and sharp old Wessex (= Dorset) peasants as in the carter above, as well as the impressively loveless candour of the nagging great-aunt who reluctantly brings up Jude. Below she is berating her charge for being sacked from his job as a human scarecrow because of course he has been daydreaming about ending up in Christminster and becoming a Classics scholar and a parson himself.

‘If you can’t skeer birds what can you do? There! Don’t ye look so deedy! Farmer Troutham is not so much better than myself come to that. But tis as Job said, “Now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock.” His father was my father’s journeyman anyhow, and I must have been a fool to let ’ee go an work an work for ’n, which I shouldn’t ha’ done but to keep ’ee out of mischty.’

Note the timeless semantic power of ‘skeer’ and ‘mischty’ and also that the peasant can be as enthusiastic a snob as anyone else. In all his childhood, his great-aunt never says a single kind word to him, which perhaps explains Jude’s wish as he becomes a man to transcend himself and his unsentimental class by mugging up Greek and Latin in the fond hope of becoming a Christminster scholar one day. Meanwhile he has to earn his bread as an apprentice stonemason and he further alienates himself by becoming ensnared by a wonderfully vulgar Wessex femme fatale known as Arabella, who blatantly ensnares him into wedlock. It is a hopeless marriage and eventually she decamps to Australia, and thus gives rise to a familiar Hardyesque tragic impasse. He cannot divorce her and as he is still a married man he cannot have the woman he really wants who happens to be his cousin Sue Bridehead. Guessing his devious intentions his great-aunt had early cautioned him that the Fawleys and the Brideheads were always hopelessly bad at marriage, and to steer well clear of her if he valued his sanity.

Sue is a brilliant creation for she is independent minded, a natural scholar and a romantic purist inasmuch as she believes in living by rational and liberating principles rather than timeworn convention. However, she needs a job to survive as an independent woman and this is provided by Phillotson, first teacher and mentor to Jude the child. He agrees to help her through training college and then have her as teacher assistant in his school but on one predictable condition: that she will eventually marry him, this fastidious and innocent bachelor who is some 25 years older. She accepts the deal much to Jude’s dismay as he knows Sue loves him as devotedly as he loves her. But the reality is that Sue is radically torn, and keeps fatally frustrating herself at every opportunity. Thus, because she misses a last train when out with Jude she stays out overnight from the training college and is rusticated as a consequence. Likewise, before her marriage she stays over in Jude’s lodging and though nothing intimate happens between them, the scandal is a public one. Worse still in her obsessive way she tortures her cousin by asking him to give her away (he is her only family) when she marries the old teacher. Even when with Phillotson’s anguished blessing she leaves her marriage and goes to Jude she will still not concede any intimacy easily and Jude becomes ever more desperate as a result.

What is unique and infinitely shocking for the time is that here we have an established male author and he writes a novel where the only intelligent and subtle orator is a rebellious and confrontational young woman. Jude to be sure is intelligent and capable of logic and irony but he makes no radical nor nuanced speeches and if anything can make only a plodding sense of Sue and her volatile mind.  Here is Sue on the maelstrom known as a broken marriage.

‘But I haven’t the courage of my views, as I said before. I didn’t marry him altogether because of the scandal. But sometimes a woman’s love of being loved gets the better of her conscience, and though she is agonised at the thought of treating a man cruelly, she encourages him to love her when she doesn’t love him at all. Then when she sees him suffering her remorse sets in, and she does what she can to repair the wrong’.

Then 2 minutes later as Jude berates her she becomes a great deal less of a vocal rationalist.

‘I am very bad and unprincipled – I know you think that!’ she said, trying to blink away her tears.

The only complaint I have with the masterpiece that is Jude the Obscure is that I can’t really believe in the hero’s perennial dream of becoming a parson, a spiritual man, which is one of the central threads of the plot. As an orphaned child, he wants glory and some notion of love, given how his great-aunt has given him none. As a young man, he loves his cousin to tender distraction while aware of the prohibitions with regard to close relatives. We are told he spends his leisure hours swotting at New Testament Greek with Griesbach’s variorum readings and the like, not to speak of praying during his endless romantic trials. That kind of arid autodidact devotion is credible in Phillotson’s case as he woefully consoles himself over Sue’s desertion by indulging his ‘hobby’ of Roman Antiquities. But Jude is so moved by his heart and his infatuation at every turn that his spartan lucubrations appear contrived and perfunctory and it seems more like a case of handy plot convenience.

And while we are at it and I’m thankfully no expert in these appalling matters, I wonder if any child anywhere in the world would murder two younger children, and then hang himself in a wardrobe? I’m glad to say I doubt it and I hope very much that I’m right.






This is going to be a bit of a pot pourri and what better way to start than with the first course of a soup you might not be familiar with? It tastes delicious and is very easy to make.

Armenian aubergine and chickpea soup

Fry in olive oil in a large pan, about a quarter of a large aubergine chopped into small pieces. They don’t need to soften before you add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a cup of cooked chickpeas (tinned are fine) and a third of a cup of red lentils. Add enough water so you have sufficient for about 8 generous portions of soup. Then add 2 tablespoons of tomato puree to thicken and a cup of yoghurt. Bring to the boil and add a teaspoon of ground cumin and some dried mint and juice of half a lemon. Don’t add any salt until the end as it slows the cooking of the lentils.

-Once the aubergine is soft, allow the soup  to cool and then whirl in a blender. Add salt as required. Serve in bowls and garnish with yoghurt in which you put a sprinkling of more mint.

From Recipes for Soup to Recipes for Finding Love

I’ll try my best to stop writing about online dating agencies any more, but just to confirm that in the past week I have spotted 2 UK women both looking for the same thing in their ideal consort, and something highly unexpected at that. On the same website which is the offspring of a well-known liberal Left-leaning UK newspaper these women in their profiles have stated as their romantic preferences something the diametric opposite of l and L-l. They both say that they want their chosen chap to be ‘public school educated’ no less. Now and just in case you are not British, be aware that the term ‘public school’ actually signifies the opposite of what you’d think, as it means ‘private fee-paying school’ and represents all that is privileged and exclusive and all that money can buy, and nothing that the condition of having no money whatsoever can ever hope to buy.

You will recall that as late as the 1990s in boys only public schools, they heartily encouraged large boys to beat small boys for minor transgressions, and for the latter also to be the large boys’ unpaid servants, aka ‘fags’. The last word is of course colloquial US terminology for gay, and there was also an obligatory fair bit of that around where there were no schoolgirls evident for light relief. Fascinatingly both of these phenomena of ritualised flagellation and gayness by default rather than choice, would apply historically to the desired online boyfriend who was likely to have been 15 in 1980 and therefore 52 in 2017. Great in 2017 then to see that 2 nice women in their early 50s still think that all that peerless aka baroque even kinky legacy will make their new partner all backbone and civility and charm and who knows what else?

Finally, the business of words, a source of enduring fascination for everyone, not just writers and philologists. Last night in an idle moment (and when I think about it I have a pleasing exponentially increasing quantity of those) I started musing, Lord knows why, about adjectives ending in -some.

Handsome, toothsome, irksome, fulsome

Now then folks, of those 4, which is the odd one out?

That’s right, it’s ‘irksome’ as the other 3 are positive and approving adjectives, while irksome is pejorative. Note that 2 of those positives are also of an anatomical origin, namely the hands and the teeth. So etymologically speaking, if you have nice hands or are nice to the hand, you are handsome. If you are good to the tooth you are thereby a toothsome item (see the Armenian soup above, though the great thing about that blended soup is you don’t even need any teeth to eat it). The lesser odd man out is ‘fulsome’ as the first part is an adjective, ‘full’ while the rest are nouns including the rather rare noun ‘irk’.

But if irksome, then come on, why not nigglesome, or pain-in-the-backside-some?

I ask you folks. I would really like to know.














The next post will be on or before Tuesday 20th June


Sometimes it can be exhilarating when someone tells you a load of nonsense, for after all sometimes an imaginative fabrication can be far more interesting and entertaining than a hackneyed truth. Kostas in one of the 3 port supermarkets outdid himself today for when I went in to buy some leeks for a projected Iranian egg dish called a kookoo, he looked at me earnestly and said that leeks were wholly unobtainable in Kythnos in summer. This was he explained because of their being imported from a restricted area of Spain (Murcia?) and then his argument became so wondrously salivatory and subtle and elaborate, I failed to understand it. I did nonetheless point out he had been selling leeks about 2 weeks earlier and surely late May was summer in anyone’s books, even Greeks? Not on your nelly he was about to sneer, for they really do think in the whole of the Cyclades that tourist-free May is an egregious example of contemptible winter. Yet doggedly resolute, because I really did want to cook my kookoo, I walked the 2 minutes to another supermarket where they had enough leeks to outleek the whole of Cardiff or Swansea or Penrhyndeuddraeth. I bought an enormous single specimen for 70 cents and then waltzed back and waggled it vauntingly at Kostas, though did not actually say yah boo and sucks to you. But Kostas, instead of revising his season-determined pan-European ebb and flow argument, and without a trace of a blush, said with a frown:

‘How much did it cost?’

That is Greeks all over. How much money do you make? How much rent do you pay? If they run a café they ask how much do they charge you for a wine down the road, and then start swearing violently at you the bearer of bad news and your unwelcome reply, saying that is ridiculous, no one can make a profit charging one and a half for not a wine glass but a bloody great tumbler full of retsina, they make me bloody sick because they knacker the market rate doing sodding things like that? Oh, and how much money did you say your daughter makes in England, how old is she, is she married, and how much does her husband make if she is, and while we’re at it how old is he?

As JS Bach counterpoint variation let us backtrack to last week when Kostas’s assistant Sotiria was in charge. Sotiria is 24, attractive, wears bright orange trousers and violently pink trainers, and is on the large or ample side, and by that I don’t mean she is fat because her notional fatness is in fact instantly alluring, which means she can’t possibly be fat other than in the wooden and resistant heads of folk who can’t tell the difference between pulchritude and amplitude. That day in the shop I saw a tempting sellophaned packet of pristine cultivated mushrooms which were priced at 4 euros, although there were only 500 grams of them. Sotiria duly charged me 4 euros and I walked off heedless until suddenly doing some calculations and realising it was probably a mistake, I turned back and said:

“Is it supposed to be 4 euros per packet or 4 euros per kilo?”

She looked at me with her always jaunty grin and slapped my arm and said, “Hey Kyrio John, it is per blinking packet, what else would it be?”

The sum in my head had told me that the supermarket was charging 8 euros per kilo for mushrooms, which is for example 50% more than they charge for luxury avocados and thus extremely unlikely. But Sotiria was not a cheat nor an underpaid assistant on the make, and I duly left the shop and forgot all about it for another 24 hours. It was then that, spotting Kostas idling by an enormous sack of potatoes intended for the numerous island restaurants, that I put the same query to him.

“Is that mushroom price there per packet, or per kilo?”

He smiled at me and my novice English imbecility and said:

“Per kilo of course, and cos it’s half a kilo it will cost you just 2 euros. Think about it, vre. No way would it be 8 euros a bloody kilo, it’s not prime steak, it’s only sodding mushrooms.”

Quite quite, I thought. But instead of telling her dry old boss that I had been overcharged yesterday, I decided I would leave it till tomorrow when Sotiria was back and we would settle the difference as unembarrassingly as possible. I would ask to be reimbursed the 2 euros and would generously spend it all on whatever was most appealing in the shop, currently assessed as 1 packet of Papadopoulos Lemon Cream biscuits to which I have become very seriously addicted and which cost 1.40 euros. Bump that up to 2 euros, shall we, with a single can of chopped tomatoes, an indispensable standby for the serious cook?

I was rehearsing all this puerile arithmetic in my brain when suddenly it hit me with a severe concussion that when the shots were called and the nonsense was discarded and the truth be told and the wool be pulled from everyone’s eyes, alas and in fact nobody owed me anything. For I gradually like some dubious sleepwalker recalled that a week ago I had owed 70 cents to Sotiria for a tin of urgent tomato puree and had forgotten all about it up till now. Then and worse than that a month back Bojan the Serbian handyman had sorted my bathroom plumbing using some astringent chemical got from Kostas for I remembered, 2 euros, but which had been got on credit and assigned to me and which I had instantly forgotten about also. The net result was that before yesterday I had owed Kostas 2.70 euros, and now deducting the mushroom mistake, I still owed him 70 cents and he did not owe me a solitary shit.




The next post will be on or before Monday 19th June


Everyone knows about stuffed peppers, courgettes, aubergines and mushrooms, but in the Middle East they also stuff potatoes, quince and apples, all of which taste delicious


Allow one large potato half, or two smaller halves per person.

-Peel potatoes and divide longways. Scoop out the flesh and reserve for making soup another time.

-Fry the potato halves in olive oil on both sides till brown

-Meanwhile saute finely chopped mushrooms and garlic, add mint or thyme and mix well, then set aside

-Saute onions and garlic until soft. Add 1 teaspoon of tomato puree, one grated carrot, and a tin of chopped tomatoes. Then mix in cumin and salt, and a few strands of saffron that you have soaked in a little warm milk

-Fill each potato half with the mushroom mixture, put them in a large casserole, cover with the tomato sauce, put on the casserole lid, and bake in oven until the potatoes are completely soft

-Serve alongside a bulgur salad flavoured with mint and cumin and with diced fried peppers and aubergines, fried sultanas and fried cashews. Also provide a dish of yoghurt flavoured with a tiny amount of allspice and crushed walnuts, and with olive oil containing a little paprika dribbled over it



-Take fresh fennel vegetable and make a v-shaped cut to remove the fibrous stuff at the base. Discard the celery style projections at the top. Reserve any feathery fennel fronds at the top.

-Grate the fennel that is left and fry in olive oil until soft

-Add single cream and lemon juice, lemon rind and sugar. The cream will not curdle I promise you though pessimists say it will. Saute gently and don’t let it boil.

-Tip over cooked pasta which you have mixed with a little olive oil, and add pistachios fried in olive oil (i.e. do not be a philistine and add cheese) Garnish with the chopped fennel fronds

-Serve with a nice green salad with a dressing of olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice, sugar



This is a standard a la Grecque way with certain vegetables, and the same is done with mushrooms where white wine and thyme are used instead of red wine and coriander seeds. That said, I have only ever seen these recipes described in Greek cookbooks, never once have I come across any of them in Greece itself in 45 years.

Allow one entire leek per person, about six inches long. If you have enormous leeks cut into six inch lengths

-Pare leeks at either end and then make a shallow slit the whole length of each. Submerge in cold water and search out any hidden dirt and rub it off. Dry the leeks

-Line them up side by side in a big frying pan. Add olive oil and a tablespoon of crushed coriander seeds. Fry at half the max heat

-When they start to brown add say a quarter of a cup of cheap red wine. Cover with lid and lower the heat

-Stew away for an eternity and keep checking to see the wine hasn’t evaporated, or if there is too much liquid only partially cover the pan till most of it has gone

-After a while the leeks turn a beautiful pink and black and cease to look like leeks. And when you taste them you feel like you are in paradise, in a paradisaical Greek island like Kythnos in fact

-Serve with Greek style roast potatoes, flavoured with lemon juice and oregano. Also perhaps a Middle Eastern egg cake known as an eggah or in Iran as a kookoo. In a big frying pan fry a few mushrooms, sultanas and almonds. Beat up 6 eggs and add to pan along with lots of fresh or dried herbs and seasoning. Cover and leave on low heat till cooked. Put under grill to crisp, just before serving. Decorate with pomegranate seeds so that it looks like a bejewelled mystery.


The next post will be on or before Saturday 17th June


I was writing recently about the surreal and mesmerising in everyday life, and more than a little of that unhinging unpredictability is evident in the current remarkable UK election results. There is such a sense of piquant catharsis is there not, to see all the smirking pundits confounded now that Jeremy Corbyn has been taken seriously as a leader and Labour has increased its vote and its presence in Parliament. And with a hung parliament as likely prospect and possibly even a coalition led by the vilified Corbyn, every pragmatic rule and mathematical probability have been cast aside. Recently I’ve heard two very different English voters talk with autopilot contempt of Corbyn as a ludicrous impossibility and Theresa May as being of the natural and proper stuff. One was a friendly and caring woman of mid-fifties,a lifelong Tory who will be rendered speechless by the impossible happening. The other was one of those porky, whiskery suit and tie entrepreneurial blokes of mid 30s who quoted Corbyn as a historical IRA chum, ignoring the fact that he had simply called for inclusiveness in power sharing discussions, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that the IRA is for years now a democratically permanent presence in the Northern Irish parliament and indeed the cabinet. I read Porky’s saloon bar rant on a Facebook page and it had all the usual splenetic guff about courageous even saintly entrepreneurs, being held back by restrictive and envious do-gooders. I imagine he must be clinically depressed today and thinking seriously of emigrating to the Virgin Islands, but perhaps at the crucial stage they will not like the cut of his sulky and chauvinistic jib and will not let him in.

More stupefying is the sight of the Scots Nationalists losing seats to the Tories, with Alex Salmond the massively articulate and unflattenable former leader biting the dust. Why the hell on any logical scale in 2017 should the Tories be on the rise in Scotland, given that Labour whose heartland lay there for decades, was decimated in the previous elections by failing to support the Nationalist referendum? You either turn to Pirandello or Kafka for poetic elucidation, or you decide it is a volatile and puerile matter of personalities and the voters taking a visceral dislike to someone regardless of their principles and politics. Meanwhile to see Nick Clegg the Liberal Democrat leader dropping out is no surprise on two counts. Firstly, as an erstwhile coalition ally of the Tories, he would regularly eat his own face to justify dropping all principles and doing the unspeakable. The other reason for his failure to touch any voter’s heart in any meaningful sense, is the first impression he makes on one, which is of either a sweet and handsome little boy of about 6 who behaves himself to universal applause at a birthday party, or alternatively, if you see him as an adult, which is hard, he has the pallid and hygienic innocence of someone who lacks any kind of authentic passion about anything. The one credit point he has is that he actually speaks a couple of foreign languages which is utterly unknown in British politics and sadly did not endear him to any of the staunchly monoglot voters out there.

Backstage, or do I mean offstage, there lurks a Nigel Farage, former boss of UKIP, the right wing anti- European nationalists, that perky vaudeville chap with his crinkle-cut haircut who always reminds me of the bygone stage buffoon Cheeky Charlie. Farage would go down beautifully at a Rotarian supper with his charismatic boyish grin and bantering after dinner bonhomie, and indeed he probably does and makes a handsome packet out of it. Now that Jeremy Corbyn might have some prospect of power and influence, the after-dinner superstar fears that Leaving Europe aka Brexit might be hampered and delayed and so he is threatening that he might have to go back and save the day. Is there such a thing as a jester who can function as deus ex machina? Possibly in Shakespeare there were, but those jesters were both subtly paradoxical and furiously fast witted, and alas Farage is stuck at the plodding Rotarian stage when it comes to wit, meaning subtlety and paradox are as foreign to him as those Europeans he loathes so much.


The next post will be on or before Wednesday 14th June


Reflect for a while on the instructive fact that we are never far away from the surreal and the absurd, no matter where we live on the globe, nor how old we are nor how wise or naïve or preposterous in years we think we might be. A few months ago, a young Albanian guy of about 30, conspicuous for his high cheekbones, good looks and a broken nose (they might be connected you know) moved in below my upstairs flat here in the island port. I rarely see him and if I do he is very respectful and always says the English Hello rather than yassas or mire dita, the standard Greek and Albanian greetings. I would be happy to be neighbourly and garrulous and tell him I’ve been to Albania and which delicious local dishes I liked best (perime zgare/succulent grilled vegetables in a Himare restaurant opposite the Dhiapondia islets) and which remote rural regions I found the most beautiful (Alpine Kelmendi without a doubt), but he rushes on out of some sort of shyness I think, rather than finding me tedious to a fault, a reasonable enough suspicion given that I am over twice his age. Recently he has acquired himself an attractive girlfriend and I don’t know whether she is Greek or Shquiptar, but it gets noisier in the small hours than it used to and there are regular rhythmic sounds from below, but so incredibly rhythmic, at such precise staggered intervaIs, I tend to think it is not what I tend to think it is. It doesn’t keep me awake very long, and more than anything I am glad for him and his broken nose that he has an attractive partner. As in his pre-girlfriend period, he is always noisily clanking about between 6.30 and 7am, making a racket with what sounds like his vigorously emptying a teapot, a rank impossibility given that 30-year-old emigre Albanians simply do not go in for bebbing char at any time of day. At 7 he occasionally remembers to slam the back door shut, before getting on his motorbike and departing for his construction job, but more often he leaves it open so that my stray cat pals sneak in and gather outside my upstairs flat awaiting me and my ministrations of tins of cat meat. Most impressive of all is when he leaves it open, a cat craftily nips in to seek me out, then the lad comes back because he has forgotten something, then slams it to on departure number 2. The cat is thus trapped inside the stairwell and on a good day it lays a little bouquet of a turd downstairs in its anxiety and excitement at the breakfast I will shortly have ready for its delectation.

The surreal and quite unfathomable element is to do with the young man’s laundry. Like myself he has no washing machine and like me he launders his clothes by hand. The difference is that I in my greybeard’s wisdom hang my washing out on a line on my balcony using the handy instrument of clothes pegs, or in Greek mandalakia…whereas the Shquiptar drapes his over his washing line and conspicuously refuses to indulge himself in pegs, and as a result his clothes are always falling off into the dust. The one notable difference over time is that when he was minus girlfriend the only thing he ever washed was 2 or 3 favourite sweaters, no freshly laundered underwear nor socks nor jeans were ever seen on display. Since the handsome woman arrived, now absolutely everything is washed, dozens of sweaters, jeans, shirts, underwear, the whole shebang. But again, she perhaps because of some arcane inner prohibition or possibly because of a terse edict from her broken-nosed boyfriend also refuses to use clothes pegs. Most of the washing is draped over the downstairs wall and a few lone sweaters are hung over the washing line, but in both cases the bulk of it blows off and it lands in the dirt. It is like pure Beckett is it not, or just like Pirandello, though perhaps there has never been any Albanian literary equivalent, other than the brilliant satirical parables apropos Balkan totalitarianism of Ismail Kadare (born 1936 in Gjirokaster). And all this cannot hinge on the expense of purchasing clothes pegs as they are one of the very few things in Greek supermarkets that are a bargain, and he could have all his dripping garments and his girlfriend’s neatly pinioned on the line for less than a euro.

And you would wonder, and this is one thing that definitely does keep me awake at night, why the girlfriend doesn’t find this irksome, exhausting and a pointless waste of energy, as it is a fair inference that the huge amount of handwashing done now below my flat is a function of her having moved in with him in the first place…


The next post will be on or before Saturday 10th June


It is summer and it is 28C, so in Athens everyone is wearing t-shirts at the tail end of May and the start of June. Many of these are emblazoned with eye-catching messages which are 99.9% in English, for in the last 5 summers, yes, alongside the 498 in the lingua franca I saw a lone one written in Greek about 3 years ago and another one in Bulgarian ditto. The messages vary from the whimsical to the philosophical to the all-purpose didactic team-leading horseshit particularly favoured by chisel faced young Greek blokes (‘your attitude determines your direction’). One or two are very rude which is always a diversion but in at least one case I’m sure the wearer had no idea of what the English message meant. She was a plain and simple Greek woman of about 50 who looked the picture of innocence and decency and unselfconscious Orthodox Christian conformity. She was alongside her pretty daughter of about 14 whose good old innocuous Mum had a t-shirt which announced NO PANTS ARE THE BEST PANTS. Quite simply had the daughter been wearing the same shirt and her Mum had known what the groovy insignia meant she would have chased her delinquent child all-round the Parthenon and then the Acropolis and all of Ermou threatening the severest violence in her vocal fury. On the other hand, another Greek woman of about the same age and on her own outside a mezedopoleio in Adrianou, knew damn fine what her rebellious t-shirt said, as the noun in the first clause and the passive verb in the second are shall we say ubiquitous universals that they would swiftly understand in remotest Bhutan or rural Paraguay as well as in metropolitan Greece. For it said: I DON’T NEED SEX. I GET FUCKED EVERY DAY BY MERKEL.

I was sat outside a souvlaki joint in Thiseio when I saw this. I don’t eat souvlaki of course unless there are vegetarian pita options, and instead I was drinking some filter coffee and reading the excellent and surprisingly homely and decorously chaste stories of James Joyce which he aptly called Dubliners. Not far away between Ermou and Monastiraki is a handsome bar full of antique mirrors and panelled wood and even smart bookshelves full of books in Greek and English, a sort of luxury antique kafeneion which is called The James Joyce. I went in that evening as there was live music advertised and I looked for any evidence of the vertiginous genius in his eponymous bar. All I could find was a sort of disposable plastic place mat with the familiar picture of the great man sporting his trilby hat and his specs. As for the music which was standard Greek classic ballads, the pianist and the violinist when they were warming up and improvising bits of jazz and blues were great. Alas once they started playing their standards, they as well as the 2 singers were like 10,000 others i.e. no Tzitzanis nor Melina Mercouri and I left the place about 10 o’ clock and went in search of peace and quiet.

Just before noting the t-shirts I was on that wonderful lane that heads up to the Phidias Hotel and the famous Atheneion Politeia café which has a civilised and hallowed atmosphere but where all the drinks cost twice what they do in Kythnos. There is a craft market running between the metro station and the start of the tourist walk to the Parthenon, and I was looking at the beautiful and bargain silver jewellery on one stall when suddenly a truly deafening row erupted about 5 yards away. A scruffy old man with a dopey looking small dog in tow was approaching another scruffy old man who was seated behind a bric a brac stall. He was taunting him victoriously about something, and the seated man became as enraged as a cartoon character and started screaming at remarkable volume at his assailant. He then pulled at his baggy terylene trousers and indicated that the left leg had been badly rent and was flapping loose. Underneath you could see his leg was bleeding quite nastily. At first, I thought the dopey dog must have done all that, but no surely it was so dopey it couldn’t even have bitten itself. As for the taunting, why would you mock someone who had been savaged by someone or something, unless obscurely he were accusing him of trying to burgle something or other from somewhere and making a cat’s arse of it and damaging his clothes and person into the bargain. It was to remind me later of course of the 5 summers long t-shirt enigma. Just as many Athenians don’t understand what their contentious and sometimes even obscene messages mean because of their inadequate English, so I couldn’t understand what this unpleasant drama between 2 poor and pathetic senile down and outs meant, as I didn’t have enough basic Greek.

The following evening dogs were in evidence again, by which I mean I was in Kypseli where in certain parts and I am not talking metaphor, the dog is king. This area has a touching and excellent village feel to it, like a kind of Greek Camden Town, and there is the famous pedestrianised square Fokionos Negri in the middle of which is a continuous string of tiny public gardens and comfortable benches. There dozens of folk and their pampered dogs consort together and while the owners banter and smoke and chat they unleash their adored and often idiotic pets and let them race around woofing and tumbling each other. You see dogs the size of donkeys joyfully sporting with toy breeds the size of a kitten and you keep expecting something horrible to happen but it never does. Kypseli is also very cosmopolitan and has a sizeable African population and to see little Senegalese kids playing with their Greek pals and talking perfect Greek is a novel and refreshing thing. It also means the arrival of a new Indian restaurant on a side street running down to Plateia Amerikis which is called the Taj Mahal. I was meeting a friend in Kypseli or unable to resist any and all Indian eateries, I would have gone in and given it a go, even though it was obviously more a take away and only had 4 little tables. In any case I had to do some urgent shopping before meeting up, so I dived into a Pakistani grocer’s where I secured a literal bucket of garlic pickle for 3 euros, rejected what the proprietor said were curry leaves as all too evidently they were bay leaves, and bagged about a pint of quality soya sauce for 1 and a half euros. It was from the Philippines and I had tried it before and it was excellent, unlike the most popular soya brand available in Greece which comes in a sweet little bottle but has no pungence whatsoever, and you can throw the whole bloody bottle into the rice or savoury dish and it will still taste of nothing so much as 1960s Ah Bisto gravy.

Which brings me on to the one real let down of my 3 days visit to the capital. On a busy thoroughfare I discovered a sizeable curry house near the hotel where I was staying, and it looked promising enough even though I constituted fifty per cent of the customers at 11pm on Thursday night, the 1st of June 2017. It was run by Bangladeshis so I dredged up my 4 sentences of Calcutta Bengali and asked the pretty waitress who was called Sultana and who tonight doubled as chef, apani keman acen? meaning how are you? It secured me free papadums and pickles but that was no amelioration for the incredible jug of house wine Sultana plonked down which looked the colour of a sick man’s urine and when I took a discreet sip amazingly tasted of searingly hot black pepper. I asked her politely to take it away for it was white wine that was scalding hot and to please furnish me with something non-caustic and inter alia non- medicinal. She smiled her puzzlement and led me to the counter where she unearthed a plastic bottle of red that looked at least 30 years old and had a kind of magenta silt not only at the base of the bottle but all along the sides. I demurred at that also and the only alternative was to buy a full bottle of proper stuff which they let me have for 6 euros. However things were still on a tenacious downwards spiral, for when I ordered brinjal bhajee (fried aubergines) she produced a dish with nil spice whatever as if she had been a humdrum Greek cook and not an amnesic Bengali. I pointed this anomaly out to Sultana and her husband who was the owner and was drilling holes in the panelling above the outside tables stopped to loudly tick her off and told her to do them again. Meanwhile I tackled the vegetable curry which tasted very unpleasantly as if out of a tin past its sell by date, and where the vegetables were obviously frozen. And you’ve guessed the rest as the clue is at the start of this paragraph. By way of spicy sauce for the replacement aubergines, Sultana had made a kind of brown mess of pottage that tasted exactly like Ah Bisto gravy crossed with the kind of gelatinous shit coloured curry sauce you get in dog rough small town UK chip shops. But I was hungry and I ate the whole damn lot and I enjoyed half the wine and asked Sultana to put the cork back in for me and watched with a certain amount of fellow feeling as she took  a full 10 minutes to do so. Her husband with his massive power drill still in hand loomed over me and asked me if everything had been OK, but it wasn’t because of the drill I warmly smiled and said yes it had been great. It was because despite everything I am still English, meaning I am incapable of making a fuss (and of screaming at another screaming dotard in public) and alas, and despite all my efforts, there is bugger all I can ever do about it.