THE PROBLEM WITH SHAKESPEARE

The next post will be on or before Sunday September 17th

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1980

In 1980 Annie and I and our beautiful 3-year-old black and tan mongrel dog and surrogate child Bill (our daughter Ione didn’t arrive till 1989) left North Yorkshire and moved to North Oxfordshire, to the market town of Banbury. A far left friend of mine from grittier than granite Brixton who was a member of the excitingly named Big Flame, on visiting us piously declared Banbury to be a repulsive case of ‘bourgeois social engineering’ but I grew fond of the place that was both a handsome little town and a London overspill site with its many new and faceless shopping centres and pedestrianised plazas and the like. We had gone there as Annie had got a job in a brand new residential hostel for young people with learning difficulties. The hostel came under the auspices of Social Services, and notionally we would have acquired a subsidised flat in the hostel to go with the job, but instead they gave us one above the nearby Old People’s Home. In those days, they did not give Head of Home jobs to people with relevant qualifications much less with far sighted and imaginative intelligence, but to those who had held responsible positions in say the army or in catering and thus knew how to ‘run’ an ‘institution’. Hence the hostel head was a spectacularly inappropriate nervous elderly lady who had managed a genteel hotel in the Home Counties and whose principal skill lay in sorting the hostel’s bedding. The Old People’s Home was run by an amiable ex policeman in his mid 30s, who once told me that he could not get away with Shakespeare because the latter used far too many words, and he simply couldn’t see the point of such verbosity, when he himself in the incontinent Bard’s shoes would have deftly cut to the quick.

By the summer of 1980 I had written 4 very autobiographical 1st person novels, all very zestful and energetic, but wholly structureless and meandering slices of life, all of them, I eventually decided, embarrassingly bad and completely unpublishable. Without regret I threw away all 4 one day, and embarked on the 5th, which was about my own family with its 4 sons in the 1950s in remotest West Cumbria, in a pit village along the Solway Firth, across the sea from Galloway, Scotland. I wrote it in the 3rd person and much influenced by the Provence writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) made it deliberately measured and slow and poetic and with a lateral and radiantly jazzlike momentum, rather than with a preordained and linear storyline. Unagented I sent it round the publishers and eventually got a very encouraging note from Lisa Appiganesi of the long defunct Writers’ and Readers’ Cooperative (the brainchild of John Berger). She told me it was beautifully written but their tiny list could not accommodate it, and then she recommended a solo woman agent who took many months to turn it down. Doggedly not to say desperately I kept on sending it round unagented for another 4 years and after 25 rejections it was taken by Aidan Ellis and published in 1985. The novel was called Samarkand and it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as concert interval readings.

Talking of books, 2 hugely gifted writers, Henry Miller (born 1892) and Jean-Paul Sartre (born 1905) died that same year, the year when the Iran- Iraq war (the heroic Saddam Hussein being staunchly supported by the USA) was at its catastrophic height.

BOOKS

Adam Bede by George Eliot

At Swim 2 Birds by Flann O Brien

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot

Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

The Spinoza of Market Place by Isaac Bashevis Singer

A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo

Malva and the Orloff Couple by Maxim Gorky

The Three of Them by Maxim Gorky

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

The Temptation of the West by Andre Malraux

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge

As A Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo

More Pricks Than Kicks by Samuel Beckett

A book about St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides

Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

Scenes from Provincial Life by William Cooper

The Captain’s Daughter by Pushkin

Knock, Knock by Turgenev

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

The Ghost Sonata by Strindberg

Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert

The Plays of Joe Orton

Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall

Painter of Signs by RK Narayan

A Life by Italo Svevo

Dead Souls by Gogol

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

V by Thomas Pynchon

Passions by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Mr Weston’s Good Wine by TF Powys (beloved of FR Leavis)

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Louis Lambert by Balzac

Dog Years by Gunther Grass

Children Are Civilians Too by Heinrich Boll

A History of Modern Japan

Selected Stories by Maxim Gorky

Shosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

 

 

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RADICAL ALTERNATIVES

WHAT I DID AND READ IN 1979

In 1979, when I was 28, for the first time ever I started keeping a record of the books I read. I didn’t read very many that year (only 18, compared with say 1982 when I read 87) but I was busy in other spheres. On March 3rd I married 23-year-old Annie Clements from Wordsworth’s town, Cockermouth, about a dozen miles from Cleator Moor = Irish Cumbria where I had been living for 4 years. We knew each other as she had been a student of mine on a WEA course I had run in Cleator Moor, entitled Radical Alternatives, a survey of revolutionary thinkers such as Ivan Illich, Erich Fromm, RD Laing and the de-schooler John Holt. We were married in tiny, lovely Wythop church, perched high above Bassenthwaite Lake, and the organist Miss Mason was in her 90s, meaning born in the 1880s as was DH Lawrence and my moody maternal grandfather, Tom Renney. Long before 1979, Miss Mason ran a sweet shop next to Bassenthwaite railway station, on the highly scenic now sadly defunct Workington to Keswick line. We also arranged for the sublimely moving Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor to be played at the end of the service on my Dansette record player, purchased in 1966, and whose spindle was always falling out and clattering loudly.

Our first date was on Boxing Day 1978 and we were married just 2 months later. There was no honeymoon as Annie was starting a training course in psychiatric nursing in York only 2 days after the wedding. We moved to a strange and sombre and moderately clannish little town called Malton, North Yorkshire, into a 4 bedroom unfurnished flat which I furnished from a N Yorks auction sale for a total of £25 (numerous completely random but attractive scraps of carpet featured copiously). We both commuted to York where I worked packing Smarties at Rowntrees chocolate factory, before becoming a postman in Malton, a job I enjoyed very much. That year the Conservatives were elected under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and stayed in power for a wondrously destructive and moribund 18 years. Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA that year, and 1979 also saw the BBC broadcasting Dennis Potter’s remarkable serial adaptation of the Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Alan Bates (1934-2003) played the lead with a wonderfully hectoring and chivvying yet sympathetic obstinacy. I taped it week by week and have watched the whole series at least 4 times.

BOOKS

Felix Holt by George Eliot

Lost Domain by Alain Fournier

The Manor by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Estate, also by Singer,

The Magician of Lublin. also by Singer

(NB the Yiddish writer living in the USA had won the Nobel Prize the year before in 1978)

Sexus by Henry Miller

To the Slaughter House by Jean Giono

Angelo also by Giono

Lady with Lapdog (stories) by Chekov

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Tono Bungay by HG Wells

The Letters of Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

The Defence by Nabokov

Quartet by Nabokov

Fatal Intimacy by Zola

A Friend of Kafka by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Rembrandt’s Hat by Bernard Malamud

 

 

THE WOMAN WHO MOCKED HG WELLS

The next post will be on or before Monday September 18th

THE WOMAN WHO MOCKED HG WELLS

‘We all knew that Mamma was not good-looking. She was too thin, her nose and forehead were shiny like bone, and her features were disordered because her tortured nerves were always drawing a rake over her face. Also we were so poor that we never had new clothes. But we were conscious that our Papa was far handsomer than anybody else’s. He was not tall, but he was slender and graceful, he stood like a fencer in a picture and he was romantically dark; his hair and his moustache were true black, and his skin was tanned, with a faint rose under the tan on his cheeks; and he had high cheekbones which made his face sharp like the muzzle of a cat.’

Rebecca West   The Fountain Overflows

Rebecca West (1892-1983) whose real name was Cicely Fairfield (her pen name was taken from an assertive character in an Ibsen play, Rosmersholm), was one of the major literary figures of the 20th century, a leading international journalist and political commentator as well as highly successful novelist. In 1912 she accused literary giant and world celebrity HG Wells (1866-1946) of being the ‘old maid’ among English novelists, whereupon he invited the rising star to his house for lunch and she subsequently became his lover for a decade and they stayed friends until his death aged 80. Like Wells she made considerable money out of her writing and by 1940 owned a Rolls Royce and a mansion where she sheltered displaced Yugoslav victims of the War. A lifelong visitor to the States it was rumoured she also had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and back at home with the newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook. She was commissioned to write books about the Nuremberg trials (A Train of Powder, 1955) and in the 1949 The Meaning of Treason, about ‘Lord Haw Haw’, William Joyce, the US born British Fascist who made propaganda radio broadcasts to the UK from Nazi Germany, and who was executed as a traitor in 1946. An early suffragette and nominally a lifelong socialist, she was prescient about the nature of Soviet communism and saw Stalin for what he was long before many others on the liberal left. This skewed her in later life towards anger against union power in 70s Britain, so much so that as Doris Lessing said many on the UK left stopped reading her and especially when she expressed her admiration for Margaret Thatcher, not because of her libertarian politics but because of her achievements as a woman.

The Fountain Overflows (1956) set in the late 19th century, is a highly autobiographical work and the first volume of a trilogy, the other two, The Real Night (1984) and Cousin Rosamund (1985) appearing posthumously. It tells the story of the Aubrey family, the father Piers being a deluded and improvident journalist, chronic gambler and speculator as indeed was West’s father Charles Fairfield. The long-suffering mother, like the author’s, was an Edinburgh Scot and also like her a gifted amateur pianist who encouraged all her children to become proficient musicians. The Aubrey children comprise 3 young daughters: Cordelia, Mary and the narrator Rose, plus infant brother Richard and they live in a decaying regency villa in Streatham, London where they are subsidised by its owner, a wealthy cousin. Piers has an office provided for him by a mysterious Mr Morpurgo, where he pens articles against socialism and the iniquities of inheritance tax, but he has the habit of blowing all he earns on the stock exchange and doing things like selling the family furniture behind his wife’s back. His family therefore survives in far from genteel poverty and the children are both badly dressed and awkward at school where they appear arrogant and unworldly. Their mother is the power house that instils pride and ambition into them, so that Mary and Rose take their music seriously and like their anxious mother who is harassed to the point of emaciated ugliness, they embrace perfectionism and discipline and scorn of worldly success. Cordelia the domineering oldest daughter takes her music seriously too, but is chronically untalented as a violinist and her mother winces every time she hears her practising.

‘She had a true ear, indeed she had absolute pitch, which neither Mamma nor Mary nor I had, which was a terrible waste, and she had supple fingers, she could bend them right back to the wrist, and she could read anything at sight. But Mamma’s face crumpled, first with rage, and then just in time with pity, every time she heard Cordelia laying the bow over the strings.’

Unfortunately, a comically witless schoolteacher called Miss Beevor decides that she is a future genius and comes round for tea to request that Cordelia be trained by her for a professional career. Mrs Aubrey is aghast but the teacher actually succeeds in getting her prodigy bookings at local events and paid bookings at that. Her mother tries to scotch the career of this unwitting impostor of a daughter, whereupon Cordelia makes a heartfelt speech pointing out that she will be the only one making any income, that the family is penniless and that their father though lovable, is hopeless. Her devastated mother, faced with this unwonted candour from a mere child, has no option then but to go round and apologise to Miss Beevor and permit the career to commence.

Meanwhile Mrs Aubrey is trying to make contact with her favourite cousin Constance who lives nearby in London but her letters receive only cool and hurtful replies, neither encouraging a visit nor offering to call on the Aubreys. At last Mamma takes a deep breath and with Rose in tow locates the house where Constance lives with her ethereal and mysterious daughter Rosamund and her unsavoury and mocking husband, a vulgar Scotsman, successful businessman and virtuoso flautist, Cousin Jock. The reason for Constance’s coldness becomes all too clear for as they approach the house a poker flies terrifyingly through the window and lies at their feet. However it is no human hand has flung it but a supernatural one, for the cousin’s house is haunted by an uproarious poltergeist and has even been visited by the national press as a result. Compulsive and tautly written as the novel is from start to finish, this comes across as an abrupt, bizarre and oddly melodramatic twist in the plot, even if West admitted in an interview in 1975 that long ago South London cousins of hers had been haunted by a saucepan throwing ghost and that a cousin of her mother, Thomas Mackenzie, the prototype of Jock, spent much of his time at seances. Even less convincing in plot terms is a that a single visit from Mamma and Rose causes the ghost to depart, albeit when Jock belatedly turns up, his mocking and bantering give a subtle and suggestive sense of brooding nastiness and you all but feel Constance and Rosamund flinching at his brutal presence. Jock in his way is a sizeable quantity of vaunting bullying evil, which somehow makes the supernatural presence seem more credible within its own terms.

The young cousin Rosamund is a beguiling, indeed mesmerising character. She has an occasional nervous stammer and yet a strikingly calm and prophetic, if not visionary aura about her.

‘We met halfway down the garden, where the lawn touched a vegetable patch. As soon as I could see her face my heart began to beat very fast. She was not blind. Indeed, what I saw in her face was chiefly that she was seeing me and that she liked the sight. This I knew not because she gave a friendly greeting, for it took a moment to recall that this would be expected of her, but because her grey eyes rested on me with a wide contented gaze and her mouth though hardly smiling, had a look of sweetness about it.’

Later when she is invited to the Aubreys, Rosamund plays a game of chess with Rose’s father and soon beats him, so that he makes a solemn public declaration of her precocious talent. This in turn presents another problem when it comes to overall plot convincingness and a necessary suspension of disbelief. Piers Aubrey is a reckless improvident, but at crucial times has a subtle and prophetic mind himself, and passes authoritative judgements on the most difficult matters in hand, which makes him less of a feckless monster and more of a prescient hero, by which I mean fictionally speaking his registers keep shifting confusingly. Ditto in the way that his work scenario is left infinitely vague. The bill for the newspaper office is footed by an enigmatic Mr Morpurgo, but the latter never actually wishes to see his employee and has all dealings done by an intermediary. This all seems borderline whimsical at times and especially when we have to be convinced by the ghostly invasion and later by the shock of a melodramatic murder of a husband by his wife.

The build up starts innocently enough when Rose and Rosamund (soon she and Constance have regular periods of staying with the Aubreys ) are invited to the birthday party of pampered schoolfriend Nancy Phillips. Her buffoonish Dad (he calls his chauffeur Georgie Porgie) is so rich he actually owns a car, but her Mum is spectacularly rude to her daughter’s guests until she discovers that Rose has possible clairvoyant powers. Rose had been showing off at the party with a number guessing game so that Mrs Phillips wants her to tell her her future, and bribes her with a huge box of chocolates. Rose wisely postpones doing so and in the interim Mrs Phillips swiftly disappears after the sudden death of her husband by apparent poisoning. Ultimately she is found in her native town living in a deserted shack and is taken for trial where the senile judge is seen by Piers Aubrey, who is chaperoning the culprit’s feckless sister Aunt Lily, to be on the brink of clinical madness. He harasses and insults the accused, be badgers the witnesses, his summing up is preposterous. When Queenie Phillips is sentenced to hang Piers is so incensed he arranges to meet, in the House of Commons and with Rose present, the nephew of the Home Secretary, where he informs him he has had printed 10,000 copies of a pamphlet exposing the lunacy of both the judge and the trial. If there is no reprieve he will willingly go to jail for slandering the judge, but the ultimate scandal when the judge does inevitably go publicly insane will be catastrophic for the Home Secretary.

Piers wins the reprieve of course and again his dialogue when telling the nephew the reality of things is marvellously cogent and assured.

‘I will write with the authority of a martyr; and I will have behind me the support of quite a number of reasonable citizens who prefer judges to be in their right mind, and of a huge army of idiots who believe Queenie Phillips to be innocent.  For no better causes than these, people will believe every word I write, and make a saint and hero out of me, and will think your uncle a monster, and you another though on a smaller scale.’

By the end of the novel this principled, brave, shrewd and ultimately authoritative father has vanished into thin air, eloped and deserted his family who are without exception bereft by the loss of their guiding spirit. In the course of the novel then he goes from feckless gambler to borderline saint, and as an interesting parallel there is a subsequent scene where Cousin Jock comes to the Aubreys to reclaim his wife and daughter, and undergoes a like transformation. At first, true to form, he harasses his audience in broad hectoring Scots, but then reluctantly decides to bewitch them with his flute playing, and finally, in polite received English movingly admits that he hates the terrible emptiness of his life and he cannot bear it any longer.

The lesson would seem to be then that, adopting the quaint old terminology, an undeniably Great Woman like Rebecca West sees Great Men like Piers the Swiftian pamphelteer and Jock the virtuoso musician, as inevitably flawed and insufferable people who can neither cope with the world nor be coped with as individuals. In response to which at random one can agree yes yes DH Lawrence and Dostoievsky and Strindberg would have driven anyone who got in their way half mad, but surely a minute’s reflection would confirm that there are numerous objections to this ultra-romantic take on art and artists apropos gender and infantilism.

One worth considering is that West herself spent over 30 years as intimate friend of the Great Man HG Wells, who therefore cannot have been all that insufferable.

But then you have to remember that they only met in the first place because she called him an Old Maid.

THE STRANGEST OF PHOTOGRAPHS

The next post will be on or before Sunday September 3rd

THE STRANGEST OF PHOTOGRAPHS

Photographs can be remarkable for numerous reasons, but when they seem highly improbable or downright incredible representations of reality, it is usually because they are hoax pictures, made all the easier these days of course by sophisticated digital editing techniques, now standard items on every smartphone. Apropos which as unwitting jester and inevitable Tech Buffoon, I promise you that a year ago I didn’t even know what that word ‘selfie’ meant, and those preposterous telly antenna things I once observed amongst numerous Japanese tourists on the road to the Parthenon, I thought might be something to do with their roaming wifi capacity. Clued up folks like yourselves will however be aware that with a selfie pic you can swiftly iron out the deplorable wrinkles and frown lines of middle or old age by deftly fiddling around with a button or two. But now turn sharply if reluctantly from 2017 and behold one of the most original and striking photos you will ever see. Note that it was taken in antediluvian pre-digital 1953 in Loutra, the northern coastal resort on Kythnos, and it hangs up in the Paradisos café in the port here. It is one of a series of commercially produced prints available from the gift shops in the Hora, copies of vintage black and white photos of the island, in a standard landscape format, but maddeningly this particular one can rarely if ever be found among the dozens available, whilst all the other much less original copies are there a-plenty.

THE PHOTO

Seated in the primitive 1950s kafeneion at 2 tables are 6 handsome islandmen all in their mid-forties, every one of them with a collarless striped shirt similar to those referred to as the grandad shirts of the early 20th century, and which were the favourite choice of those aged around 20 in 1970, viz of a lackadaisical student radical such as myself born 1950. Strangest of all is the way 4 of the 6 men seem to creepily duplicate each other as either identical or damn near identical twins. One set of ‘twins’ has short groomed black hair and neatly shaped moustaches, the one smack in the centre of the group and the other ranged far right. Twin 1 is staring inquisitively, even challengingly, at an acute angle and upwards as if looking shrewdly at the camera man, while his ‘double’ Twin 1A is looking slightly down his nose into deep if dour reflection. However, they are definitely not the same person, even though they look as if they might be, because not only do they sport different sandals, one of them has a shirt with tight lateral stripes and the other with a notably more open pattern. All 6 gents have tidy long shorts just covering the kneecap which lends them a rather decorous Edwardian sportsman aura. As for the rest, aside from different coloured shirts, 2nd from left Twin 2 and 2nd from right Twin 2A differ principally in that the first has downcombed and parted hair, while his doppelganger has it upsloping with even a little tuft sprouting perkily from the crown of his head. Note that both sets of twins could well be cousins or at least part of the same clan or sub clan, and it is worth emphasising that all four of them look deadly earnest, even slightly stunned by the august photographic occasion, or possibly just by the shock of finding themselves inescapably situated in isolated and poverty stricken mid-century Kythnos.

Between Twin 1 and hypothetical cousin Twin 2, sits a conspicuous loner as he is twin to no one, and possibly in line with that, immediately strikes one as having a mean and aggressive side to him. His lips are downturned ever so slightly and his eyes seem narrowed and ever so faintly suspicious. He looks the image (if not the identical twin) of Gianmaria Volonte (1933-1994) when he played (adopting the odd pseudonym Johnny Wels) the Mexican baddie in the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964). His hair is shorter than all the rest, always a worrying sign if like me you are an unreformed ultra-left hippy from 1970, and he also looks as if he is brooding about an act of past or future vengeance. He sits at an oblique angle to the last man in the group, conspicuous as he holds a walking stick, and is also the only one wearing a hat, and a handsome and sizeable panama at that. This hat and stick man is on the far left and facing right, and would appear to be the only one actually looking at another member of the group, viz the one ranged far left who is Twin1 A, the one looking down his puzzled nose into dour abstraction.

Thus it is that you have 6 strikingly handsome Greek men, all born around 1907-1910, four of them who might or might not be twins, and possible cousins, 5 of them staring at bizarrely staggered and oblique angles, and thus, deliberately or not, avoiding each other’s gazes. Nor for that matter is it even certain that the man with the hat and the stick is looking at Twin 1A, he could in fact be looking slightly to his side. The simplest way of describing the wholly weird frozen tableau effect of this very strange 50s cameo, photographed on an obscure and forgotten Greek island, is that all the men look to be turned to stone pace the famous wholesale Narnian petrifaction in CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950).

But why I ask myself, and those of you not living here on Kythnos might also ask the same, why on earth would that be?

THE MAD MONTH

THE MAD MONTH

The next post will on or before Sunday September 3rd

A couple of nights ago on a roasting August evening I witnessed two scenes so diametrically opposite they might have been intended as morality lessons devised by whatever it is that lies behind the seemingly hallucinatory surface of all mundane things. I was taking the rubbish out to the row of skips which lie on the main road between the port and Dryopida and to do so I had to stagger up some steep steps. Just before the ascent I could hear the wild and joyish yelps of 2 dogs playing together and there behind the metal gate I beheld the mother, a black and obese and comically amiable retriever cross with its swollen paps, frolicking with a pup of about 3 months old. It was a beautiful pup and it stopped to lick my hand through the gate and then decided better and nervously retreated. Then mother and son resumed chasing and fooling again and it occurred to me what while pups only existed to run after each other, I had never once seen a mother dog playing like this with its child. Perhaps, I decided, that is what they always do when they only have the one, and feel obliged to imitate being a young one themselves, rather than deprive them of something as urgent as their play.

I left them and at the top of the steps looked right for traffic and my eyes rapidly glimpsed the red faced old lady who sits outside her house every evening staring always with concentrated bleakness at the traffic and at passers-by. She has a face of I’m tempted to say pure misery but it is more complex than that. Behind that stony and unrelenting mask there are elements of anger, of disbelief, of bitterness, of seemingly depthless and inexpungible melancholy. I don’t know who she is or whose relative she might be (there are about half a dozen principal clans and sub clans in the port) but as she always sits alone she must surely be living on her own, nursing in public and with scorn some colossal grievance manifest as a historical deceit or outrage in the form perhaps of a sudden and brutal bereavement or other cruel loss, a pitiless blow which not only cut her in two but hurt her once substantial pride, then turned her brain and took not only the wind but the fabric itself out of her sails.

The next day and for the second time only I visited Kythnos’s prime tourist attraction, one which appears on nearly every postcard of the island: Kolona, a beautiful elongated sand spit which markets itself as that splendidly surreal phantasm of one’s dreams, a ‘double beach’. It is a 15-minute sail from the port, and two little boats which proudly call themselves sea taxis compete for the trade. Inexplicably both taxis have just halved the fare from a reasonable 10 euros return to a meagre 5. I asked the ticket seller why, and he said there had been pressure from the council but was unable to elaborate further (those clans and sub clans again, just possibly). It left me for the first time in my life feeling sorry for a private transport system when the poor buggers are obliged to charge less for a single trip (2 and a half euros) than you would pay for most fairground rides in the UK. At any rate, en route we passed the island’s busiest and therefore most oppressive beach, with its booming by which I mean absolutely deafening disco bar the Poundaki. Off season massive Episkopi bay is an unpeopled dream where Ione my daughter and I have dawdled luxuriously with retsina and tiropittas twice in consecutive Decembers and in doing so more or less forgotten that the rest of the world exists. In August it is wall to wall recliners, beach tennis and the choice spectacle of fat blokes chainsmoking and using their phones in the sea, only pausing to shout hilariously at their noisy pals. After Episkopi is an even bigger bay at Apokrousi which while populous in high summer maintains some studied self-respect, even though there is a brand new beach bar called Coconuts, replete with decorated oil drum tables, which does its best to spoil things. From Apokrousi there is a very bad dirt road to Kolona used only by 4-wheel drives and pick-ups and the truth is if there was a decent asphalt road here the sea taxis would have much less trade, and the sole taverna possibly ditto. As it is the taverna owners seem also to own access to the whole of Kolona, as out of season the route to the villas that sit opposite are gated and padlocked, so that no one can drive there, nor can any pedestrian get easily onto the double beach itself. However I managed to clamber over the gate in April 2015, and was delighted by the total absence of tourists and there was but a single yacht bobbing up and down compared with the 20 or so of last week.

We were the very first flotilla of passengers arriving at 11am and the beautiful and massive sand spit was almost deserted. Most of the day trippers carried colourful parasols retailed at a uniform 10 euros in the port, to protect themselves from the heat, the wiser ones employing elaborate tent peg appurtenances and even attaching sizeable pouches containing heavy bricks to withstand the notorious Cycladean aeras = Strong Seasonal Winds. It is the quaintest thing in the world to be simultaneously roasted whilst having a ferocious gale blowing around you, often creating a vicious sand storm which can be painful to your pouting and incredulous face and your sadly unprotected arms and legs. Alert to which laughable contingency, a proud old Greek in his sixties with a permanent and exaggerated frown, accompanied by his relaxed and smiling wife, stood with a large brick battering in his parasol to a great depth. He then surrounded the pole with about 20 more supportive stones from the beach until he had a minor mediaeval fortification, doubtless impregnable. Prudent defences swifly seen to and with his wife beaming admiringly at the fact Kostas here never smiled at anything no matter what, Hunter Fisher Athens Man strode severely towards the briny and set about exploring the perfectly sandy bay before setting about some truly expert swimming.

He had just executed a majestic crawl the considerable length of the whole of Kolona and back, when there was a loud shriek from his wife as his erstwhile subjugated parasol went blowing with such appalling insolence into the Cycladean ether. It rose up and aloft and kept on magically going and finally it settled far off on the other side of the gate that guarded the dirt road up to Ag Loukas chapel. Kostas hesitated a whole half second and then snapped at his wife to go and get it, and as she dawdled  excessively at getting off her deck chair, he berated her at Episkopi beach bar volume, and she even seemed to bristle and thrill at the public castigation for of course only she knew that it was Kostas’s principal way of showing that he really cared about her.

OUT-BLOODY-RAGEOUS

The next post will be on or before Monday August 28th

OUT-BLOODY-RAGEOUS

I regularly advert to the most endearing habit of Athenians, both in the capital and in their favourite holiday haunts like Kythnos, of wearing t-shirts with groovy slogans in English, as a means of proving their wit, their audacity or their trenchant personal philosophy. About a third of these messages tend towards bullish all-purpose executive bollicks on the lines of JUST DO IT! or MAKE THINGS HAPPEN; another third is oleaginous New Age pap advising us that Love in the Form of Faithfully Watering the Garden of One’s Precious Spirit is all that Really Matters in this Beautiful Cosmos; and the final and my favourite third is the rude, the risqué and the downright outrageous. After 4 years of gawking at hundreds of such t shirts I now give the prize to what I spied 3 nights ago while sat sipping white wine about a yard from the sea at a café table on the sand. A handsome dark haired Greek woman with fine high cheekbones aged about 45 and wearing very tight black jeans and a white t shirt, was in the company of 3 or 4 friends and was enjoying a volta along the harbour. On her shirt front in stark black letters were the following forthright injunctions in the order indicated below.

DESIRE ME

SEDUCE ME

KISS ME

WHIP ME

Well you can’t say better than that, can you? By which I mean assuming she is stating her authentic wishes, when it comes to her ideal and uninhibited erotic dalliance, her 4-stage recipe is impressively crystal clear and impeccably assertive. The thing that strikes me right away though, is that the chances of her understanding all of those commands to her notional partner, who I suppose could be either male or female, are fairly slim. She looked the sort of person who sure enough might have imbibed a basic English principally from the Greek telly, in the form of a provocative vocabulary mostly learned from racy US movies. So the imperative ‘kiss’ would be no problem for her linguistically speaking, but almost certainly ‘seduce’ and ‘desire’ would be long shots, quite simply because those last 2 words are rarely articulated as verbs, but more often in their noun analogues in romantic films or chick movies. And the longest shot of all would be the imperative ‘whip’ for apart from dedicated porn movies, there are scant occasions where it features in quotidian or even sophisticated discourse either inside or outside of the bedroom. That being the case, the handsome woman clearly does not know what her shirt is saying to the watching world; she only has a notion of general riotous bawdiness and amusing shock value.

All of which set me idly thinking that apropos the last imperative, supposing someone takes her at her word and comes and deals her the flagellatory wallop she demands, would they be guilty of assault or would she, the seemingly willing victim, be guilty of incitement…or both? Perhaps it would be empirically worth testing, by employing an innocent small boy or girl of say about 4 years, with a toy whip such as in the old days one had for one’s whip and top. One would hilariously whisper in their ear what a strange and comical thing the nice lady over there was asking for, and then see them stroll up and deal a vigorous whap on her tightly-jeaned rear end, and record a cogent documentary note on how she took it, the granting of her singular request.

Hilarity all round no doubt and possible revelatory embarrassment for the monoglot t-shirt wearer, as the 4 year-old child, from his or her copious knowledge of English fairy tales read at school, full of horses and donkeys being whipped up and made to canter to the king’s palace post haste etc, knows exactly what that last word means.

POSTSCRIPT

The title of this post is taken from one of the 4 tracks on the album Soft Machine Third (1970). It is innovative jazz rock of a phenomenally high order and pace Flann O’ Brien, its like will not be seen again. The organist Mike Ratledge (who went to University College, Oxford, to read Psychology as I originally did) deserves a knighthood for his remarkable playing, at the very least.

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.