WHO DO YOU LOVE BEST?

I am teaching next week and the next post will on or before Monday 31st July

WHO DO YOU LOVE BEST?

A couple of years ago I quoted a travel writer journeying in remotest rural Nepal who noted the bizarre spectacle of a sulky little boy of at least 8 years old, being breast-fed by his peasant mother as she trudged along. To beat all, the lad periodically relinquished the nipple and took deep drags from a cigarette he held in his agile free hand. It is not quite as extreme as that here among the cats in the Paradisos, but it isn’t far off when it comes to the business of feeding and getting your hereditary and cognitive and conative wires colourfully crossed, of which more later…

The cafe’s oldest cat is a shy little, helpless, hopeless, skinny little cinnamon coloured individual who I immediately christened Mildred when I first saw her. Greeks don’t give their cats names as a rule, but I do and with relish. Mildred has a very handsome son I promptly dubbed Arthur who is now aged about 3 and both he and his mother’s singular names have caught on in the Paradisos, though Greeks always pronounce Arthur as ‘Arrrrrthoorrr’ as if he is from Strathpeffer or the Isle of Muck. Meanwhile Mildred gets pregnant usually once or twice a year, and Maria her owner throws up her hands in vacuous consternation and blames everyone but herself for not getting round to having her sterilised by the island vet. It would cost her 40 euros and spare her endless anguish, as when the kittens come she is aptly always having kittens that they will be run over on the nearby road. Since I have been here, almost 4 years now, Mildred must have had about 6 litters and Maria has had 6 lots of protracted anxiety but she never learns from history. She almost but not quite, like some other ludicrously anthropomorphic locals, blames Mildred for being so promiscuous. Anyone who knows anything about cats and especially street cats, will know that a tom’s notion of tender courtship is to leap on the fancied female’s back, bite them hard on the neck as if to anaesthetise them in some special nerve bundle they happen to have read up about and thus locate, and then have their unsparing way with them. No female cat in their right mind would willingly opt for that and they spend their time angrily hissing at and running away from the Lotharios, at least half of whom who are so plug ugly and/or missing an eye or an ear in their fights with rival toms, it is no wonder they go for the rear attack and the paralysed neck approach, as they would never win any luscious or non-luscious female heart face on.

Mildred recently had a litter of 4 lovely little kanela/cinnamon kittens. As if pulling out the last 5 years’ identical amateur dramatics rehearsal lines, Maria went through her theatrical fretting as the babies grew and flourished and started to stagger and ultimately race recklessly around the café. Sadly one of them vanished early on, so probably was run over by a car or attacked by a dog, but the other 3 became ever more playful and wild, and spent their time feeding from Mildred, fighting with each other and wandering ever so close to the busy road, a place where island Greeks like all Greeks, always drive far too fast, 40 year old women and 80 year old blokes included. But then a miraculous salvation beckoned, as a smallholder of about 40 called Stamatis who is one of those rare Greek males fond of cats, offered to take all 3. He has a huge spread of land way out on the Rema road and there they will be a safe as houses, not least because it is set well back from the dirt road. I was delighted to hear it and so of course was Maria, but incredibly the whole thing protracted itself into a tortuous Samuel Beckett farce and looked as if the salvation might never happen. First of all, Stamatis insisted he wanted to take all 3 at once, not one at a time and he expected Maria to do the rounding up and have them ready in a handy cardboard box. Cue Maria dozily and nervously approaching just one of the little imps and it, how unexpected, darting and racing away, and Maria throwing her arms up in despair as if she had been given one of Hercules’s tougher tasks to do by teatime. It didn’t occur to her to persist in the chase, nor to employ any kind of intelligent strategy, as the histrionic throwing up of her arms is such a reflex tic in her case, and obviously must have worked as some kind of defensive tactic in either her childhood, youth or early marriage. I put it to her that they were 3 tiny kittens, not leopard cubs nor vipers nor Tasmanian devils, and all she had to do was wait till they were sleeping and whisk them swiftly into the box. But ah no, Maria was not only helpless at what she hallucinated as the Royal Christmas Hunt or the Tiger Safari, she was full of other more obscure excuses. Supposing, she said, she did get them all into the box while they slept, Stamatis had told her he couldn’t get over here till 8 tonight meaning the poor things would be stuck in the box for 6 long hours, oh the poor little angels pent in durance vile. Better than being squashed by a bloody big lorry, Maria, I told her tersely, you are turning the transfer of 3 baby kittens into a life or death or even apocalyptic WW2 manoeuvre,  koritsi mou, surely there has to be something wrong with your logic…

Just as I was thinking it would never happen and these lovely little things would all be dead within a week, an enterprising Paradisos customer, a farmer of about 60 called Kostas, apprised of the problem, took control and while they were snoozing, lifted them all deftly into the box and then drove them himself to Stamatis’s smallholding and was back with his mission achieved in 20 minutes. I looked at Maria and said, look, see, that’s how it’s done, take note. You don’t just flap your arms about, and say oh me, ah me, dear me, poor me to be confronted by this egregiously nasty and insoluble problem, but you get your act together and you bloody well do it. You know I wouldn’t be surprised if Kostas has cats of his own and I bet he has every one of them sterilised as well ….

And to return to where I started. Mildred deprived of her 3 kittens started to pine and search for them all around the Paradisos, and to cry her sadness quietly and hauntingly, in keeping with the fact she is one the gentlest and meekest little animal souls I have ever seen. She took to lying on my lap to be petted if I were sat outside with a beer, as if she wished to be treated like a little kitten herself or perhaps just to be consoled for all these umpteen pregnancies that sage Maria blamed on pestilential fate or blamed on her the cat. It was then that by a miraculous chance, a long-forgotten son of hers I had christened Jakie when he was born 2 years ago, appeared most fortuitously on the scene. He was from 3 litters ago, and he rarely came anywhere near the Paradisos but perhaps the sight of his bereaved mother had sent him here on a wise and compassionate if perhaps insoluble mission. It started one day when Mildred wandered down to the fisherman’s stall to distract herself from her loss no doubt, and one of them had kindly chucked her a nice big fish. She walked back with unusual haste and non- Mildredesque determination to the Paradisos, in order to tuck into the sumptuous prize. Along the way Jakie the scapegrace Man of Mystery had happened to spot her and for laudably complex reasons had trotted on behind. They appeared together in the café and Mildred hurriedly went into a kind of recess behind the outside tables,where she sat about masticating the fish. Her son followed on and hung around her as she feasted, but she ignored him totally and commenced to devour the entire fish rump and stump.

She turned round sated and happy for the first time in several days. She had grieved for her lost kittens and now with this regal banquet perhaps she had stemmed a little of that awful saline sorrow. Her grown son, the slim and elusive Jakie, came and rubbed himself lovingly against her and she responded albeit slowly. Absently and amnesically acknowledging that they might after all be blood relatives, she suddenly and briefly licked his backside, and that alone. Jakie  smirked and purred and thrilled to the maternal touch, and rubbed himself all the more tenderly against his dear old parent. It was overwhelmingly obvious that he genuinely preferred her tenderness and recognition to even a giant share of that luscious fish. Objectively of course he had been given a raw deal as his mother had eaten every bit of it, and given her son precisely nothing. Instead, by way of expansive generosity she had cursorily licked his backside. Imagining that in human terms and transposing it to the UK, it is as if a mother were to drive up to the Chinese carry out in the middle of town to get the luxury Set Meal for 4, i.e. that one bursting with king prawns and other toothsome delicacies in all three courses. She gets home where the 3 kids aged 7 to 15 are all sat in anticipation, but bizarrely Mum just sits at the table with a single plate, and before their astonished gazes devours the whole bloody lot intended for 4 people. They swallow their hungry and tormented saliva and all of them, even the 15-year-old, look more than a mite tearful at such unwonted maternal callousness.

Not to worry however, all is good and the mother’s heart has not after all frozen. Without a word, she approaches them, stoops down and in succession kisses all three children’s backsides. The kids wriggle and look amazed not to say aggrieved, for unlike Jakie and Mildred a kiss on the behind is really not enough and it is not a worthy salve. They wanted king bloody prawns and all they got was a kiss on the bloody arse…

Meanwhile Mildred is still very heavy with milk. She lies down in a corner where strapping 2-year-old Jakie, weaned many moons ago, decides to lie down with her. In a trice, he has his hungry mouth on her nipples and he is sucking away with the sound of a demented vacuum pump. It is the first time ever that I have seen a grown cat feeding from its mother, and it is a touching and unhinging sight. Mildred is away from it all in every sense, as she is fast asleep and she couldn’t care less, as she is also full of first class fish. But as Jakie prefers his mother’s caresses to even the rarest gratis feast, it proves yet again that most animals and especially cats, are so much more moral, boundlessly more ethical, infinitely more virtuous than any of us human buggers could ever dream of being.

PANOS AND THE TURKS

The next post will be on or before Friday July 21st

PANOS AND THE TURKS

Panos the Kythnos egg farmer was in the mood for fooling about yesterday, or rather acting like one of those Zen masters who like to confuse their far too earnest students with their onerous questions by offering a baffling paradox. To start with, I asked him why he was on his own here at the Paradisos Cafe, and where his very nice wife Sotiria was, and he sniffed and said they had just got divorced or no no, wrong word they were whatsit, they were recently separated. This was apparently since I had last seen him laughing and teasing with her, and slapping her back affectionately, all of 2 days ago. He said it po-faced but I snorted at the idea of his doting wife of 50 years having suddenly run off with the goatherd, or of Panos himself feeling the urge to roam like a second roused and restless goatherd in search of fresh pastures. That in turn reminded me of my own ever faithful parents, who both died relatively young in their mid-seventies, and by association my Dad himself as a poultry keeper magnate. In the late 1960s he had so many hens in his 3 allotments he had to sell their eggs via the Egg Marketing Board. For this he was paid a risible pittance but nonetheless he was proud of his legendary quantity of 100 pampered hens. That connection prompted me to ask Panos a gnawing and crucial question, and to see whether he or my father over a 2 millennium half-century period was Overall Pan-European Poultry Baron.

“Panos, how many hens have you got out there on the Rema road?”

He stared at me, as if I were some buffoonish jester and an unlicensed English version at that.

“What kind of a question is that? I’ve no bloody idea. They are beyond count.”

I glared back at him. “I don’t believe you. You must have some basic idea of how many. To the nearest 10 or 20 or 50 hens.”

“Well as it happens, I haven’t a bloody clue. To quote the Bible, as many as are the hairs on your head. Or rather, no, I mean as many as those that are on mine.”

Touche. I am half bald and though Panos is 71, he has a wonderfully full head of hair that looks as if made of barbed wire, it is so tough and hardy and seemingly ironic and disdainful of all things hairless.

I persisted in my search for quantitative certainties.

“But what about losing them to foxes or to thieves? If you really don’t know how many you’ve got, you wouldn’t even know if any had been eaten or stolen.”

He guffawed. “Call that logic? There are no bloody foxes on Kythnos, just as there are no rabbits here come to that. And no bugger goes stealing hens in a place with a population of 800. They would be noticed and followed and battered senseless within half an hour if they tried it.”

We were sat outside the Paradisos and he was hungrily knocking back a big square of tasty ekmek kadaif cake. Apropos which, anyone, even if they don’t know a word of Turkish, knows that as with baklava, here you had a charismatic Turkish sweet that had been adopted by an erstwhile part of the Ottoman empire. Ekmek, with its clacking double k, and the snappy rhyme accompanying, could not possibly be a Greek word, for it was Turkish to the core.

I couldn’t resist telling Panos this.

“You know that ekmek kadaif is Turkish, Panos? The two words that is. And that Turkey is the origin of the dish?”

He squinted at me in the sunlight, then muttered, “No, it isn’t.”

I felt a sudden buzzing in my left ear, a symbolic somatic reaction if ever there was, to this autopilot stone walling by an obstinate old Greek. Mythical divorces and his myriad hens never being subjected to a census, I could just about swallow, but denying the historically obvious was something else.

“Of course ekmek is Turkish! So is bloody baklava!”

“No, they aren’t!”

“They bloody are! I’m bloody telling you!”

“No they bloody aren’t. No bloody way…”

“Eh? You are just crazy, Panos. Really cracked. OK then, listen, what about aubergine imam? Short for imam bayeldi. I suppose you’re saying ‘imam’ is a Greek word, and ‘bayeldi’ meaning ‘fainted’, is a Greek word too, are you?”

“No. Granted. But they probably stole the dish from us two or three hundred years ago, then gave it their own fancy Turkish name.”

“Bollicks! If they did that, then the Greeks must have had their own name for it before that. So how come the Turkish name has stuck?”

Panos shrugged and said he was fucked if he knew, and it was obvious he was massively unimpressed by my oh so decadent and superfluous Anglo-Saxon logic.

“You Greeks,” I reproved him, “are all the same. Egg farmers or TV producers it makes no bloody difference.”

He sniffed. “Oh yes? How’s that?”

“Last night on the Greek TV news, it reported a heat wave in the capital of Turkey and the fact everyone was hitting the beaches there. You know what the capital of Turkey is, I presume?”

“Too damn right. Constantinopolis.”

“Exactly. That’s what the TV called it too. The rest of the world calls it Istanbul and only the Greeks call it Constantine’s Town.”

“Well the rest of the world is wrong. It’s the seat of our Orthodox church and the seat of Byzantium and it was always bloody ours.”

“True enough. The Greeks are right and everyone else is wrong. So when a foreigner is talking to a Greek they play the game or else the Greek gets shirty and sometimes enraged. Ditto with the country that calls itself Macedonia. The Greek TV calls it Ta Skopje after the capital and the Greeks even campaigned to have it called FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia…”

“Damn right. The fucking nerve. There’s only one Macedonia and it’s bloody well Greek.”

“Such matchless logic. When it was a province of Yugoslavia you Greeks didn’t give a shit it was called Macedonia. But when it became a country, you Greeks did give a shit about it using that same name. Where’s the sense of that?”

“You can’t steal a fucking name for your country is the sense of it!”

I rounded on him by an elliptical route, that of appealing to any refined or unrefined sense of personal dignity he might possess.

“Look, how would you like to be called Fyrom instead of Panos? It sounds like a suppurating boil on the arse or like a type of bleach.”

“Tough shit! Call themselves Eldorado or Shangri La or Never Never Land if they want. But not our Macedonia.”

I downed the dregs of my coffee, then went back on a more  measured assault.

“Don’t you see the laughable phoniness of it? When the rest of the world is talking to each other they say Istanbul and Macedonia. If a Greek enters the room they hurriedly switch and say the words that please them rather than get a volley of indignation and abuse. But as soon as they leave the room they switch back to the grown-up adult words.”

“Eh? What’s adult got to do with it? Grown-up be damned! Lies and distortions by people always wanting to conquer us and put us under their bloody thumb!”

“Oh yes? You really think that titchy Ta Skopje wants to walk in and conquer Greece? My arse. Listen to me, Panos. The Greeks rightly condemn what Israel is doing now in the former Palestine, where the West Bank is a kind of tyrannical open prison ruled by the Israelis who control everything that goes in and out, life-saving medicines included. But the Israelis respond by saying it’s OK to behave like heartless monsters, because in the Old Testament Palestine was theirs, and the OT is full of horrendous and arbitrary massacres much worse than anything the Israelis ever do. This thus makes them by historical comparison, really exemplary and far-sighted liberals. ”

Panos blinked at me and then responded with unexpected energy.

“But we the Greeks have never colonised or controlled anyone! Never in the memory of man. We’ve been colonised by every other bugger of course: the Turks, the Nazis, the Italians, the Brits, the bloody Yanks.”

I said, “To your credit. Good for you and your country. But nowadays you are rather like kids who ought to have stopped believing in Santa Claus, because you are all of 10 years old, you are no longer 6. However the grown-ups, meaning the rest of the world, don’t want to upset you, so they keep on saying to you that Santa Claus is real. Then when you leave the room they laugh at you behind your back and ask themselves how old you will be before you stop believing in Father Christmas.”

Panos looked as if he was about to turn purple and wade in with fists flying, at me and at my spiritless obsession with rationalism and logic. The first thing he would say was, you try living under the Turks for hundreds of years, and see how far logic takes you, and how appropriate it is to remain twitching and pulsating from the shock, and to be lastingly and unshakably paranoid when the buggers have been ousted and have gone. They weren’t social democrats you know, weren’t the Ottomans, they didn’t have courts of appeal and civil rights bodies and neutral arbitrators called Lord This or Lady That. And what’s more and by the looks of it, that bully boy Recep Tayyip Erdogan is gleefully going back to exactly how it was if not worse.

Instead of which he grinned with a look of perverse mischief and said:

“Guess what I’m going to do right now?”

I smirked, much relieved I hadn’t offended him to the core nor indeed to any notable extent.

“Maybe  going to embrace your wife by the look of you? The one that you are separated from.”

He guffawed as if I had made a salutary reminder.

“No. That’s for later, that’s for 8 o’clock tonight. Leg over first, then brisola and chips. Not brisola and chips first, then leg over, that’s bloody bad for the digestion. Remember that, sequence is everything. No, no, try again. What you do you think I’m going to do right away, once I get home?”

“You’ll be watching the blockbuster Turkish soap that everyone’s watching. Black Rose.”

He actually beamed at me then as if I had pressed a vital button on his soul.

“I watch the omnibus at the weekend. It’s bloody great. The wife goes bloody mad for it. For Black Rose, that is.”

I smiled and said, “No doubt. OK. I give in. I’ve no idea. What are you going to do, right away, Panos?”

He stuck his huge nose about an inch from mine then cackled:

I’m going to count my hens. Haw! Haw! Haw! Inspired by you I’m going to get down on my hunkers and count my fucking hens. 117,118,119, oops start again. Where was I was I now? 219,220,221. Here chucky chucky! Haw! Haw! Oh, you’ll be the bloody death of me you will, my dear old Englishman, my dear old, dear old boy.”

Then he walked off slapping his thighs and bellowing with hysterical laughter, and I felt a real if passing anxiety as he sounded as if he would never ever stop.

 

TINA’S SIN DRUM – a short story

The next post will be in or before Thursday July 20th

TINA’S SIN DRUM – a short story

It was mid-August when Jane McGrath informed me that her application for the much-deserved promotion in her teaching career was so urgent, that she couldn’t possibly meet me for at least a week, but to hang on in there at all costs, as she was so wondrously impressed by me and all that I had told her about myself. A few weeks before or it might have been a few weeks after that, another woman called  Maggie Stour said she would have loved to meet me in town for an exploratory coffee but her senile Saluki, Reggie, who was 16 and severely diabetic, was in urgent need of TLC after a glandular op at the vets, so she couldn’t reasonably leave him in the lurch, but would stay by his cushion doing Guardian cryptic crosswords and giving him moral support in the same way she would have, had Reggie been a child, which as a matter of fact he was in all but species.

“Saluki?” I asked, trying not to sound too envious of Reggie’s TLC. “A Persian Greyhound? Why don’t you call him Rustam? And as an Iranian, how does he feel about living in Tooting Bec?”

At approximately the same time or it might have been a year or two before that, an interior designer called Fanny Bright said she would have loved to get to know me, but was just off for a month’s holiday in the Camargue with her girlfriend Gail, walking and cycling and boating and barbecuing and hopefully finding some authentic gypsy music among the cattle herders. She had always been nuts about Django Reinhard even though she knew he wasn’t from the Camargue because he was Belgian, and also crazy about flamenco star Paco de Lucia who had died young in 2014 and yes of course he wasn’t French either, but he was in the same mould was he not? Django Reinhard was a notorious womaniser and had two disabled fingers and Fanny wondered in her communication to me were the two things connected, not logically but imaginatively or even symbolically.

“I mean two knackered fingers and yet a great, an unsurpassed guitarist. Can you imagine how that makes any sensitive woman feel? You love the ghosts of the damaged fingers more than the healthy ones he has left. You identify with the ghosts yourself, you almost feel as if you are his two helpless fingers. Oh, I know it sounds whimsical and fey, I can’t put it into words. Well actually fuck it, I can, and I did. That’s me having my say. But look I’m so sorry I can’t meet you for a coffee for at least 6 weeks, you sound really bloody interesting, amazingly fucking interesting in fact, and there are so many dreary, incredibly quite impossibly half-baked bastards of men ready to waste your precious time if you’d bloody let them…”

Round about the same period, unless it were perhaps about five years earlier, Tina Reading was a busy bee as well and she inevitably struggled to find a free slot for me in her bulging diary. She laughed at her penchant for overwork, but the mirth was qualified as she had two very pressing health issues. For 10 years she had had ME, myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, though not too severe, and indeed she held down a busy career as an ophthalmologist and managed to keep her symptoms at bay while at work. But of course. with all that obligatory repression, when Tina got home she crashed, flaked out and lay on her bed doing Observer cryptic crosswords and listening to Radio 4, the early evening quiz shows being the things she liked best. She loved that one with the good-looking very intellectual, very posh English blokes, John Walsh and Sebastian Faulks, with their encyclopaedic knowledge about literature (huge brains are so bloody sexy, there is simply no way of getting away from that) quite incredible, they even knew Bertie Wooster’s butler Jeeves’s Christian name and all about Jane Austen’s discarded juvenilia and all that kind of thing, and it almost made her forget about her bloody ME. That is, had there not also been the hideous and persistent lower spine problem, the chronic pain at the bottom of her back, which at times was more overwhelming and disabling than the chronic fatigue…

Tina Reading had a stern-faced old mother called Martha who was 98 and who lived with her in a granny flat annexe, even though Tina had no kids. Martha had more mobility than Tina had most of the time, and was not particularly sympathetic about the ME, though she accepted the lower spine problems as reasonable albeit retrospectively preventable had her daughter had any real gumption. Two years short of 100, Martha fearlessly lugged the dust bins out the front every Monday night in preparation for their emptying Tuesday mornings, and pointed out that if Tina did the same she might strengthen her spine and who knows even blow away the cobwebs of that wotsit of hers, her Permanent Knackeredness Sin Drum…

“For God’s sake. Don’t call it that, Mum. It’s so bloody undignified.”

“Eh? I only mean that bloody complaint thing of yours. Your Always Shaggedoutness Sin Drum. That Perpetually Buggeredness Sin Drum of yours. That Forever Feeling Really Fucked Sin Drum that you reckon you have.”

“Oh shut up Mum with your bloody Sin Drum!”

They were Martha’s appallingly inelegant paraphrases because she had worked in the saloon bar of a rough dockland pub for most of her life, so that the f-word and all passive verbs like shagged and buggered and knackered, two thirds of which were of course synonyms for coition, came as naturally to her as the air she breathed.

I liked all of these interesting and good-looking women very much and would have loved to have met any or all of all of them for a drink or a meal, but it was all sadly like an ironic and even crudely mocking dream where obstacles in the form of eternal and unvanquishable commitments inevitably supervened. I felt a sense of helpless and let’s face it irritable anguish as I contemplated their perpetual remoteness and harrowing unattainability, as if perhaps my life really was turning into a waking dream, and things and especially those things called women were always going to be unattainable and there was no such thing in the world as a nice lady who had a free evening, not next week nor next year, not next decade, nor next century nor next aeon, nor next Hindu yuga, but dammit tomorrow or even dammit tonight itself! Imagine that, I said to myself, quite breathless with excitement, bloody hell, imagine it, and I even added a louche profanity. Imagine, I conjured to myself, a woman who was available to see me tonight no matter what. Imagine that even if she had a string of cosmically important prior appointments she said to herself bugger it, I am going to meet him, that wonder boy, that hunk, that Lothario, that Abelard, that Jack Nicholson or Steve McQueen or Ronald Coleman or Gregory Peck in his younger days, no matter what… and let the world of tyrannical and ultimately crippling and never to be remembered on your sodding obituary responsibilities go bloody hang.

Fuck me, I said to myself at that glorious and wholly inconceivable mirage. Fuck me stiff.

Or as and according to taste.

And then I added a quaint if mordant anachronism:

Is’t possible?  

 

 

ALL THESE IMMIGRANTS

The next post will be on or before Wednesday July 19th

ALL THESE IMMIGRANTS

A few weeks ago I was talking to a Greek woman called Marina in her late 50s who was passionate about drama, meaning that living on a very modest income she spent much of her free time watching Greek versions of e.g. Ibsen, Shakespeare and Beckett as performed in club theatres in Athens. Marina was keen exclusively on serious drama, so had no interest in musicals or light farces or the Greek equivalent of pantomimes (I wonder now, as you must do, do they have pantomime anywhere outside of the UK and other anglophone countries? I could google it I suppose, but I cannot really imagine a Xira Twankey or O Kyrio Ntik Whittington). For someone so extremely cultured her background was unusual, as she wasn’t university educated but had trained from the bottom up in hotel management and for some years had worked in the UK and become fluent in English. Divorced and with one daughter in her early 20s who she described as a hell of a handful, Marina’s life had not been easy but she had a strong sense of comedy and what you might call a defiantly wicked laugh. I met her in an Athens bookshop where the English manager was our mutual friend and the three of us sat outside the shop drinking coffee, squinting in the morning sunlight and talking about our kids and our favourite plays (for the record, mine is on one day the hilarious The Government Inspector by Gogol and on the next, the fantastic and quite uncategorisable Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge).

The point of all this scene setting is that I was very surprised when the conversation moved to our favourite parts of Athens, and Marina made a strange response to my nomination of Kypseli about which I have written a couple of times. It has an exquisite village flavour with its central artery of Fokonos Negri replete with doting dog owners, public benches and little patches of parkland, not to speak of its numerous excellent cafes, juice bars and granita joints. Kypseli also has some dilapidated back streets which I also like, given that some of them contain Indo Pak grocers where I love to dawdle and look at all the obscurest spices, especially when they are in colossal completely shameless 1kg bags, and opposite one of these grocers there is even a new Indian restaurant. As is more evident in Plateia Amerikis just down from Fokonos there are substantial numbers of recent African immigrants who I am also glad to see, especially the young guys as they are lively, vocal, irreverent and seem as if they know how to enjoy their difficult lives no matter what. Possibly some of that vibrance and lack of inhibition was what Marina was elliptically and unhappily referring to when she described going to see some play in Kypseli of a winter’s night, so that when she emerged it was pitch dark and she was met full on by what she described as more or less a nightmarish vision of Africa in Athens.

Her humorous face was suddenly taut with a kind of retrospective terror as she said that all she could see was black faces talking and gesticulating so loudly, the pitiless opacity of the dark winter night, and for a split second she really didn’t know where she was, as it could hardly be Athens for it seemed so much like Senegal or Cameroons or God knows where in the pitch dark. It was 18 months ago this had happened and that sense of catastrophic displacement had stayed with her to such an extent that just the word Kypseli could still make her shiver. Lorna the bookshop owner and I looked at each other and did our best to talk gentle adult logic to her, because of course  2 English leftists can hardly listen to someone making out an imaginative hallucination of Africa by night must inevitably and of itself be nightmarish. For after all Marina was no standard scowlingly parochial Greek much less any Xrisi Avgi racist…and even more confusingly her favourite recreation was lapping up Strindberg or Joe Orton or Sarah Kane and quite simply people who like radical and iconoclastic drama cannot simultaneously be horrified and chilled to the bone by ethnic variety and cosmopolitan elan.

I place that baffling opposition side by side with another one, for earlier this week I was in Athens again and was staying in Metaksourgeio, another ethnically mixed area. Certain streets near the metro station are chockablock with Albanian and Bulgarian travel agents, one with the startling though impressive name of Crazy Holidays (tell me, would you go and book with them?). However I had never explored the streets on the other side of Karaiskakis Square and because the nearest post office was in that area and I urgently needed to send a birthday present, I boldly jaywalked, skipped, lunged and swore my way across, dodging all the luxurious pullman coaches headed for impoverished Tirana, Shkoder, Plovdiv and Sofia, and after about 10 minutes found myself in the backstreets of Karachi or Lahore proper, all the more convincing as it was 6 o’ clock a night and was boiling bloody hot. Here in narrow alleys were young Pakistani men some of them in traditional kurtas unloading fruit lorries and chaffing and bantering with each other. Beside one lorry were 3 old men with vast beards and swathed headpieces again laughing and chuckling together, though they also looked the epitome of piety and modesty and sobriety. There were umpteen battered cardboard boxes strewn across the road and a few oranges covered in dust at the edge of the pavement. With numerous spice shops and cosmetic parlours on every corner, it certainly felt more like Asia than Athens, as of course do many parts of London, Bradford and Leicester in the UK.  And indeed why shouldn’t it and who cares anyway, as like it or not we are all the one human bloody race, and we need to rapidly grow up and accept as much, for even if Marina’s childish nerves tell her otherwise it is an ineffaceable truth.

I saw one enterprise that possibly might have cared. Smack in the middle of one of the grubbiest Asian back streets was a splendid Best Western Hotel, replete with a confident young Greek bloke in a smart suit in the hallowed doorway acting as ad hoc usher. Just like Marina in Kypseli I rubbed my eyes at the vertiginous mirage. An oasis of Westernness in a desert of Easternness? That hotel could only have been put there before this was an immigrant area, and I wondered how its fortunes had fared since the flavour of the streets surrounding had changed. Indeed by way of documentary research I felt tempted to go across and ask the young Greek manager in a roundabout way, but then I thought no no, there was a fair chance he might just give me a suave and politely edited version of Marina’s instinctive and artless abhorrence.

Plus, and to put my cards on the table, I never really liked Best Western Hotels anyway. Annie and I stayed in one in Milan in 2005, and to be frank and just between you and me, and when the chips were down, it just did not cut the accommodatory mustard. The reception staff either grovelled, or in their glacial coolness effectively treated us like invasive dirt, and those are two sides of the same coin as I’m sure you already know yourselves.

THE FUNNIEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

The next post will be on or before Wednesday July 12th

THE FUNNIEST BOOK IN THE WORLD

The touchingly understated narrator of the 1961 comic masterpiece The Hard Life by Flann O’ Brien, is called Finbarr, and he is one of 2 orphaned Dublin brothers. Born in 1885 he recalls aged 5 seeing a haunting photograph of the impressive Dad he never knew. There are seemingly poignant echoes of Dickens’s David Copperfield here but the tone from the start is po-faced anticlimactic.

‘I had never met my father at all but in due time I was to see and study a brown faded photograph – a stern upright figure wearing great moustaches and attired in a uniform with a large peaked cap. I could never make out what the uniform stood for. He might have been a field-marshal or an admiral, or just an orderly officer in the fire brigade; indeed, he might have been a postman.’

Finbarr refers to his older brother Manus as ‘the brother’ throughout, a cordial Dublin shorthand that is found again in the writings of Myles na Gopaleen which appeared for years as a column in the Irish Times. Both Flann O’ Brien and Gopaleen were pseudonyms of Briain O’ Nolan (1910-1966), a brilliant scholar of Irish  and Old Irish who made full use of his linguistic dexterity in both At Swim Two Birds (1939) with its send up of the Old Irish Epics featuring Finn MacCool the mythical hero with his Ireland-sized backside, and in the 1941 novel written in Irish An Beal Bochd (‘The Poor Mouth’) a zestful satire on all things rural Gaelic i.e. that which is poverty stricken and where the only things to eat are potatoes, where the pig that lives in the house is mistaken by an Irish scholar as a brilliant Gaelic speaker, and where it is drier at the bottom of  the sea than it is above on the ever drenched land.

The brother in Myles Na Gopaleen is an adult and he is the sage and opinionated, meaning knowall gobshite, of the family. By contrast the brother in The Hard Life once he turns teenager is the budding entrepreneur schoolboy who has the ingenious idea of lifting chunks of information from encyclopaedias, conspectuses etc and then offering them to the public as instruction manuals. By this means he posts out at a price, primers on among other things Tightrope Walking and Elementary Philosophy. The former manual is written supposedly by one Professor Latimer Dodds, and here is the beginning of his pithy disquisition on the secrets of the high wire art:

‘It were folly to asseverate that periastral peripatesis on the aes ductile or wire is destitute of profound peril not only to sundry membra or limbs, but to the back and veriest life itself. Wherefore is the reader most graciously implored to abstain from le risqué majeur by first submitting himself to the most perspicacious scrutiny by highly qualified physician or surgeon…’

It is not long before gullible novices inspired by Prof Dodds are plunging into the River Liffey and the Dublin policeman comes knocking at the door where the brother resides. The orphans have been taken in by a relative called Mr Collopy, a kind of irascible and opinionated uncle figure very similar to the uncle in At Swim Two Birds. Collopy is married to a sadly invalided Mrs Crotty meaning that she maintains in her husband’s mind and mouth at least her maiden name. The old couple have a docile and squashed daughter called Annie who nominally cares for the orphans and whose response to all queries or statements about anything, is the economical single word, ‘seemingly’. The twin and parallel themes that structure the novel are the ever more reckless entrepreneurial ingenuity of the brother and the sacred quest that Collopy embarks upon, namely the provision of public toilets for women which at the end of the 19th century in England-ruled Dublin were shockingly few, and when even the broaching of as a topic of discussion was regarded as impious and disgraceful. Collopy is assisted in his quest by his friend and drinking partner, a German Jesuit who rejoices in the exquisite name of Father Fahrt SJ. Their table discussions where Collopy lambasts the hypocritical insincerity of the Catholic church and even worse the Jesuits, produce a comic vehemence of the highest order.

‘Father Fahrt, said Mr Collopy earnestly, you don’t like the Reformation. Maybe I’m not too fond of it either. But it was our own crowd, those ruffians in Spain and all who provoked it. They called decent men heretics and the remedy was to put a match to them. To say nothing of a lot of crooked Popes with their armies and their papal states, putting duchesses and nuns up the pole and having all Italy littered with their bastards, and up to nothing but backstairs work and corruption at the courts of God knows how many decent foreign kings. Isn’t that a fact?’

As the brother’s business flourishes so he takes to staying out at nights and drinking, and on his rare appearances at home, arguing drunkenly with Collopy. Eventually he decides to move to London where he opens the London University Academy which offers everything by postal tuition from Boxing to Elocution to Hypnotism, Oil Prospecting, Treatment of Baldness, Sausage Manufacture in the Home, and more perplexingly Panpendarism and the Cultivation of Sours. Simultaneously lazy and bibulous old Collopy becomes stricken by severe arthritis for which of course the encyclopaedically prepared brother has a miracle cure. He has within his armoury of specialisms a highly potent medicine called Gravid Water which he posts to Finbarr with strict instructions re the dosage. However, he is not astute enough to spell out teaspoonful, so Finbarr interprets tsp-ful as tablespoonful and although Collopy claims he feels better thanks to Gravid Water, his weight commences to rocket to a phenomenal degree, until he is so obese that he can hardly stand.

Meanwhile thanks to Father Fahrt’s good offices, Collopy is granted an interview with the Pope himself in Rome, where he can spell out the urgency of providing Dublin women with public lavatories . By now the brother with his London Academy is a walking moneybags and he arranges the boat journey for himself, Collopy and Fahrt, and all the logistical transport to Rome, including gangs of 4 hefty well-paid men to hoist elephantine Collopy up onto the boat deck and subsequently down from it. Then with intermediary Fahrt and the brother in attendance he ends up talking to the Pope, but sadly there has been a catastrophic misunderstanding, and the Pontiff is as disgusted by the nature of Collopy’s petition as everyone was back in Dublin.

As the brother writes to Finbarr:

‘As a matter of fact, the Pope told us all to go to hell. He threatened to silence Father Fahrt’

And later, translating from the outraged Papal Italian. ‘We are deeply troubled by such a strange supplication for our intervention on such a question. It is improper that such a matter should be mentioned within these walls. This is a sacred place.’

Much depressed by his abysmal failure to impress the highest spiritual if not temporal authority, by way of distraction Collopy is taken out by Fahrt and his nephew to a violin recital in Rome. However, half way up the steps his outlandish weight causes the floor to shatter and thanks to Gravid Water he goes plummeting through the woodwork, and soon after dies of internal haemorrhaging. Later his handsome epitaph on his Roman grave paid for by the spendthrift brother reads:

COLLOPY of Dublin, 1848-1910, Here lies one whose name is writ in water. RIP

The brother’s Gravid Water that was, of course.

Briefly then Flann O’Brien as in At Swim Two Birds, once again lampoons the scholarly mode or rather the spurious scholarly mode in the form of smug pedantry or sciolism as it is also known. The obverse of that is the guileful chancer’s approach, that of the brother who lifts scholarship of various integrities from antique reference works and then turns them into naked profit. As variations on this were the elaborate and barmy footnotes in O’ Brien’s brilliant but apocalyptically chilling The Third Policeman (written 1939, published posthumously 1967). Here a deranged scholar called de Selby is quoted to the effect that the phenomenon of ‘night’ (as opposed to ‘day’) may be explicable as ‘accretions of black air’, the same de Selby that is who promoted the notion of ‘roofless houses’ odd little rectangular structures with suspended tarpaulins above them. Or were they in fact, as the supra narrator argues, just meaningless de Selbyan doodles on the margins, subsequently misinterpreted by other so-called scholars?

All this zestful send up of the pedantic, I believe goes back to the daddy of them all when it comes to derisive mocking of the arid scholastic mode, Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) author of Gargantua and Pantagruel. (1532-1564). I have no solid proof that O’Brien ever read Rabelais but my guess is he could hardly have employed the hilarious and very specific satirical means he uses if he hadn’t. Besides which he was so formidably well read in so many languages, and so fascinated by the rude and the outrageous and the appalling, it is inconceivable he did not dip into the works of the jobbing doctor and persecuted heretic who spent much of his writer’s life fearing for his life in general.

THE TRAITOR AND THE ASSASSIN

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

THE TRAITOR AND THE ASSASSIN

‘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?

 

TOO MUCH PEPPER, MAN

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

TOO MUCH PEPPER, MAN

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.