The PoMo Circus in Crete. The Lavender Way in Felia

An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So ... is the Pope a catholic?

Well, that was a bit of a shocker wasn't it? 

What was? 

The old fella retiring …

What old fella? My old man's long dead and yours has been out to pasture for a good few years …

The Pope you fool, did you not hear it on the wireless? or see it on the idiot box?

Oh yeah, that …

Yeah that …

But it's not like he's a spring chicken is it? Eighty five or so they said … and he hasn't retired, they can't …

Whadda yah mean he can't retire ? 

Well it's technical, they say, he had to resign, they say, cos they can't retire … popes that is …

Why's that then ? Where did you hear that? 

It was in the paper this morning .. they said there was no Papal pension pot you see …

Eighty five did you say ? well he should be allowed to retire at that age shouldn't he? 

Well that's as maybe but if there's no pension pot then … what can you do?  I dare say he's got a few bob put by tho'. it's not like he's got a mortgage or rent to pay is it? must have put something under the papal mattress don't ya think? 

So they're supposed to work till they drop are they? Popes? 

I guess so … I mean my old man had been dead near 30 years when he turned 85 … it's a good age … 85 is … but it's not like he's had a hard life is it? Theology and the priesthood doesn't exactly knacker you out does it? not like humping bricks about your whole life is it? or clearing up other peoples' muck like your old man … what is he now? 70? be lucky to make it to 80, he will …

True … and his pension's crap too … and the government's not helping him much … I mean I drop him a few quid when I'm flush but a fiver doesn't go far these days does it? 

So what do ya think he was on … wage wise? The Pope, not your old man ..

Must have been a fair screw I reckon. A grand a week? More maybe …

Must have been. Well he wasn't exactly hard up was he? So why do ya think he packed it in? Like we said it's not like it's a tough job is it? So why would he pack it in? 

This guy on the radio this morning was saying it's all about making sure he can decide who the next bloke up will be … succession planning he called it … making sure that the next Pope is a conservative too 

So he was a Tory? I didn't know that. So will Cameron get the job then? He's a bit young isn't he? 

a conservative with a small c not a Tory … Jeez … I don't even know if Cameron is a catholic but I do know the queen isn't, can't be, by law nor her kids

So when's the election? 

… what election? for the Pope? well they have to get all the bishops and cardinals over to Rome for that so that'll take a while I suppose …

Can't they do it on the internet these days? I mean some of those cardinal fellows are getting on a bit … why make them travel to Italy? and I wouldn't want to pick up the air fares for that lot …  

 True , that'll be a pretty penny that bill and anyway …

Anyway what? 

... well after that Arab spring jobby the other year shouldn't they be doing it democratic like now? All the candles voting for whoever they fancy? There was me thinking we like democracy .. recommending it to everyone … forcing it on loads of 'em even … why not the Pope then ? 

Well … it's the old do as I say not do as I do isn't it ? Same old same old. 

True … They should give it to that Dawkins bloke … he'd shake 'em up a bit,  bring 'em into the 21st century he would  … at least he'd get rid of all those filthy old kiddy fiddlers … 

Somebody should … disgusting that is … needs sorting … 

Not going to happen though is it? Not in our lifetime. 

Nope … Shall I get a couple more pints in? 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The writing muscle

I learnt to write in my professional career 30 years ago. Running a research department full of technically brilliant but linguistically challenged guys somebody had to take responsibility for presenting their findings to best advantage. And then there were the applications for new projects. It quickly became obvious that if I couldn't write convincingly and well then we would run out of credibility pretty damn quickly. 
Senior managers are not assiduous readers I discovered. Long preambles and strong narrative were pointless. Get to the point quickly and make it stick hard. The more I wrote the punchier my stuff became so I started writing imaginary proposals and speculative finding just for practice. The prose got tenser, leaner, sharper. And the writing became easier. That's when I realised that writing is like any sport - the more you practice the better you get at it. My writing muscle got harder and stronger and my stamina improved. The more I did it the better I did it. 
After a while it stopped getting easier but the writing became better. I got to the key points quickly, pushed them home and moved on from point to point until I rammed the conclusion, unavoidable and all but incontravertible by now, into the basket. Slam dunk.  
My reports got shorter and slowly I worked on different ways of  designing different presentation styles. I figured that people would get sick of the same approach every time and if I could know who would be reading it then I could tailor the attack to their sensitivities. The writing muscle was now becoming more versatile - it could manage slow starts and sprint finishes - it could sustain serve and volley or drop back and play a baseline game. 
Treat your writing as a muscle. Keep it fit, make it strong, and make it versatile. It won't let you down if you do. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Warming up for the Comeback

The title of this piece, "Warming up for the Comeback" is also the title of a short story by a writer called Sam Keery. Look him up - he may still be writing. Maybe he published the story. I worked with Sam. He was my boss for a while in a desultory fashion - he bossed me in desultory fashion and I worked for him in an equally desultory fashion . We both worked for a really big and really boring insurance company - all insurance companies are boring but the bigger they are the more boring they are. We both turned up but the word work is conveying more effort expended than either of us actually put in. Truth was he was more interested in writing and I was more interested in reading. The difference between us was that he was maybe a year away from early retirement and I was a rising young buck but we both dug literature more than anything else. 

Sam gave me the draft of this short story to read because, like Nora Barnacle and Joyce. his wife wasn't at all interested in his writing. Her choice - she was entitled - he was allowed. Sam had plans to spend his retirement writing for publication. It was his passion and he'd spent most of his working life denying himself but once he retired that was it … he was finally going to do it. He was going to be a writer. I told him that being a writer is an existential binary - you're a writer or you aren't, just because you aren't writing now doesn't mean you aren't a writer, just because your stuff doesn't get published - ditto. You don't become a writer. 

I took the story to the smoking room. We had smoking specific rooms then - it was before the all out assault on smokers - our habit was marginalised but we weren't. And I read it through. It was OK in a sub William Trevor way. Sam was a Protestant from Northern Ireland originally. It was about a footballer getting ready to return to league football after a bout of injuries or at least I think it was. Or maybe I made that up - that's part of being a writer, the line between what you remember and what you invent is faint or vanishing. Anyway, whatever the plot was, what it was really about was a writer getting ready to do writing full time. Or so I thought. I was deeply into post modernism at the time and was reading Mulligan Stew  - that's definitely true - I think. Sorrentino's comic masterpiece was the first book I had begun re-reading immediately on finishing it since … well since a long time - maybe since my first Ray Carver collection.

Sam didn't agree with me but promised to think about it. He also promised to read the Sorrentino. I promised to re-read his story and treat it as a story - period. 

We did some work. Sam took a week off for a funeral and when he came back he gave me the latest draft of the story - funerals were always a good excuse for time off. The new draft was tighter, a little faster and the voice was more consistent. To me it was obvious that he had taken my ideas on board but the way Sam saw it was that he was working hard. That he was, as he put it, "working the writing  muscle harder". Sam's take on writing was deeply Protestant - all about work ethic and toil. The way he told it writing is like thinking and thinking is like any skill - you have to get the stuff that does it fit and keep it fit - if you do enough of it you get better at it. If you don't use your muscles they atrophy. If you don't use your brain it atrophies. Your brain is by metaphor another muscle and if your brain is a muscle then by extension the writing organ is a muscle. I'd never thought of it like that. I do now.

I recalled that incident with Sam when I came across. or somebody sent me, or some other body told me about Stendhals injunction to writers "Twenty lines a day, genius or not'. Whoa, rewind, I just remembered it was Harry Mathews who introduced me to  Stendahl's wisdom. Mathews got a whole novel out of that discipline and even called it "20 Lines a Day". And I just remembered or reconstructed - what's the difference for a writer? - as I was questioned about my use of the expression "exercising the writing muscle". So do I do it? Do I take Stendahls advice? Not really or rather intermittently. I may not stay in regular and permanent writing trim but I do make sure I warm up before embarking on a new writing project - it's what I'm doing now. It'a been a longish layoff and the muscle has lost tone but ...  


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Reading a novel by the bits

I have just finished reading my first novel on an electronic or e-reader. The novel was Tibor Fischer's excellent Good to be God and as I had expected it is another carefully written and clearly expressed examination of what it means to be a modern human being in a complex society such as ours - Tibor seldom disappoints and I would happily recommend any aspiring writer to read his stuff rather than the fluff that comes out of modern creative writing courses.

Reading a bitstream book on an e-reader is a very different experience to reading a cellulose based book. First up let me admit that most of my novel reading is done in bed last thing at night and the Sony e-reader is both lighter and easier to hold than a medium sized paperback. It's a lot lighter and easier to handle than a 4 or 5 hundred page hardback! The screen is clear and crisp and the page turning is simplicity itself. I love the fact that when I switch it on it goes straight to where I left off reading. It is good that it switches itself off if I fall asleep and do not turn a page for half an hour - that has been known to happen.

I love cellulose books and have done since before I could read. I think I first fell in love with the smell of books - old books don't smell like new books; hardbacks don't smell like paperbacks.   Dust jackets are wonderful - almost as good as old LP covers. The heft, the feel, the texture: every cellulose book is different whereas I suspect that every bitstream book is the same in sensory terms.

The thing I wasn't expecting to miss with a bitstream book was the thing that I had clearly absorbed so deeply about cellulose books that I didn't consciously know it was there - so I suppose I couldn't reasonably have expected it to shock me but the very first time I settled down and got past the title page, the dedications and the fluff I felt a massive sense of loss. Architecture!

A cellulose book has an architecture of that has a lot to do with the layout of the text and a lot to do with the physical form of the artefact itself. Most strikingly missing from a bitstream book is the right page: when you read a cellulose book you have two pages visible at one time; if you are reading the left page you can see what is coming ( a full page, a chapter end, a set of endnotes, whatever); if you are one the right page you can see where you came from. Moreover you can with a cellulose book, and at any time, know how much you have read and how much more there is to read. The e-reader tells you your current page number and how many pages the book has but as a measuring device it is like making a comparison between a watch with a face and a watch with a digital display - the quality of the imparting of the requisite information is simply more satisfying and profound with the analogue version. 

I recall, as a youngster the introduction of the CD and remember hearing that the length of a CD had been determined by making sure it could hold a complete performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now this may or may not be true - apocryphal tales abound but I sure as hell wish that the makers of e-readers had decided that any device would, with fully charged batteries, see the average reader through the full length of a long novel - say "Infinite Jest" - but mine needed recharging 200 pages into my chosen novel and you could hardly call 279 page a long novel!!!

Cellulose and bitstream reading are different. Cellulose books have limitations imposed by the physical architecture but many people will never realise it. Bitstream books have limitations imposed by current implementations and "standards" and many of them can easily be removed but many of the implementors don't even know they have problems. Don't even talk to me about pagination on e-readers - it just sucks.

I'll carry on with both - probably for the rest of my reading life but we shall see how the comparison.contrast stacks up in a few years time.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Cousin Mary

Cousin Mary was a pretty little girl when she was young but age has hardened her and has etched an ugliness into her face that comes straight from her soul. She was a morose child though and then a deeply melancholy teenager.  She grew into a depressive young woman and at the age of 22 she tried to kill herself by hurling herself from the roof of her mother's house. She succeeded only in shattering her pelvis, breaking her spine and breaking both legs in multiple places. A paraplegic now, Cousin Mary can no longer climb onto the roof. Her wheelchair confines her body to the ground floor and her failure confines her mind to meanness. Cousin Mary is a tyrant in the ancient Greek sense and a martinet in the more modern French sense.

Grandma Alice was beautiful baby, a beautiful child, a gorgeous teenager and now she is a radiant old woman. Though her skin is that strange translucent shade that we associate with extreme old age and she gives every impression that a strong wind could blow her away her inner beauty shines through her pale green eyes. Grandma Alice is Cousin Mary's mother though I suspect that Grandma Alice would rather that Cousin Mary were not her only surviving child.  Three dead sons, one dead daughter, 2 still births and a living daughter have, over the years, leeched iron into Grandma Alice's soul. She loves Cousin Mary but she does not like her one little bit.

Let me explain some relationships - Grandma Alice is not my grandmother. She is in fact the baby sister of my mother's mother. She was born a year after my mother as I was born a year after Cousin Mary. Uncle Theo is my mother's baby brother so he genuinely is my uncle and he is also a  government scientist of some description.

My mother? My mother is, like Grandma Alice, an old woman now but she is spry and but for her eyesight dimming of late she would be cheerfully old but she fears not being able to read and she detests the idea of no longer being able to drive. She cherishes her autonomy and worries a lot about becoming dependent. My mother, like Grandma Alice has the genes for thinnness. Not so Uncle Theo.

Uncle Theo is a rotund, orotund joker. His baritone voice is strong and clear and so his numerous jests and puns boom out above any amount of modern background din. In these days of commonplace obesity he is more cuddly than fat or gross. You could say that I favour my uncle in terms of body shape and in some ways I favour his demeanour too. I am happy with almost everything apart from my body shape and I do not, I fear have his wicked way with words.  Last Xmas, over Xmas dinner in fact, Uncle Theo dubbed Grandma Alice's family as "the auto-destructive end of the gene pool" where my father's side of the family, coming as they originally did from a tiny, remote hamlet in the countryside he described as "the shallow end of the gene pool".

All three of Cousin Mary's brothers, in point of fact all four of her live born siblings committed suicide before they reached thirty. John, the first born, laid his head on a railway track when he was just in his majority. Paul overdosed on morphine in a London squat - a hyperdermic syringe hung from his groin. Tommy, little Tommy, slit his wrists with an old fashioned single sided razor blade in a warm bath in his mother's upstairs bathroom -  a large glass of whiskey, a full ashtray, 4 unsmoked Gauloises in a crumpled pack. and a copy of Joannes Zonaras' Compendium of History laid face down and open at page 284 were found with him. He was 18. Alice, named for her mother and the first born daughter starved herself to death at 15.

Grandma Alice's house is laid out on three floors: a cellar where wine and provisions are stored; the ground floor where Cousin Mary rules with a rod of pure titanium wheeling around in her chair from the library where she sleeps to the kitchen where she interferes with the cooking and provisioning of the house and picks constantly at snacks and biscuits. Cousin Mary does not have the thinness gene. The drawing room features on her circuit too but only in order that she can assure herself that it remains locked at all times.  Grandma Alice has her bedroom on the top floor in the same room that she and her husband shared. He is long gone. He may be dead. We cannot be sure. He left the year after Cousin Mary's suicide attempt saying that he would not be dictated to by his own daughter. Grandma Alice was not sad to see him go. Grandma Alice's house is permanently silent. A funeral parlour atmosphere lives in this house.  Cousin Mary has had a bathroom installed in part of what was the library before her father left. There is a hoist that serves both to get her in and out of the bath and also in and out of her bed. Uncle Theo once told me in confidence that Cousin Mary's quarters reminded him of Catherine the Great's bedchamber but he smiled, tapped the side of his nose and refused to explain why when I asked why.

Grandma Alice has a piano. Actually, Grandma Alice has two pianos. As a child she showed precocious talent as a pianist and composer and her parents encouraged her by employing a tutor. Grandma Alice lived for the piano. The family, close and distant, would gather at holidays and the high point would always be a recital by Grandma Alice, sometimes solo and sometimes with a local boy who played violin passably well. Her talent blossomed and the tutor believed she had a concert pianist under her tutelage but made a terminal mistake by entreating Grandma Alice's parents to enter her at the Conservatoire Frederic Chopin in Paris. He had badly misjudged her parents who had no intention of allowing their youngest daughter a career. The tutor was peremptorily dismissed and within the year Grandma Alice had been married off to an eligible bachelor notary in the nearby town. He was 12 years older than Grandma Alice when they married; that is why we now assume he is dead.   

Grandma Alice's day to day piano is invisible to all but Grandma Alice. Perhaps not entirely invisible - there are traces to be detected. In the middle of the kitchen is the huge farmhouse table, a pitch pine rural monstrosity, that serves as a food preparation area, a desk, a work bench and a reading station. Grandma Alice always sits with her back to the south facing window over the stone sink and if you were to look very closely, forensically closely, you would or you might find evenly spaced fingerprints along the edge and if you closed your eyes and visualized the pattern of those fingerprints then like a Polaroid photograph developing in your hand you would or could. if you tried really hard, perceive a piano keyboard. Mother tells me that in the early days Grandma Alice used to spread tea towels that mother had bought for her printed with piano keyboards along this surface and play silently for hours - the tea towels wore out in time and Grandma Alice never replaced them. I suspect that she never needed them - the real keyboard is inside her head and her hands.

Grandma Alice's other piano is a Steinway grand. The very same Steinway on which she practiced in her youth. The Steinway that replaced the old upright that she learned on as a child.  It has not been tuned in years. Grandma Alice has not seen it in years. It lives, or perhaps it rests, in the drawing room. The drawing room is always locked and Cousin Mary has the key to the room. She wears it on a chain around her neck.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Lamentations 1:1

I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to write this. I've been, we've been, denying it for weeks. Given the nature of it I'll make it swift. I don't wish to linger.

! 2010 IS A DISASTER !

Yes, you read that right 2010 is officially a disaster. It's the last half of August and the first angustifolia harvest should be done and distilled but instead we have a single table of dried flowers and a thin dribble still coming. No purple haze this year.

It's more or less the last week of August and the spica harvest should be well under way but instead great chunks of the bushes are dying or dying back . That's right - dying back big time: a drought tolerant lavender is dying in parts. In all areas of the farm lavender is dying back and we have been irrigating since April.

The olive trees that have had a set, and those that haven't too, are spotted with yellow leaves. Olives are wrinkling and dropping from the lower branches even while the trees put on ridiculous thin top growth.

The ground is like concrete. The wild carrot that dominated the fennel this year is dead. There is scarcely a wild flower or grass in sight.

The plants are exhausted. The soil is exhausted. We are exhausted.

Autumn 2009 was warm and unusually dry. Winter 2009 was warm and unusually dry. The olives did not swell fully. Our olive harvest was one of the few in our valley - most people didn't even bother. Spring 2010 was short, hot and dry. By the end of April 2010 we had started to irrigate the lavender weekly - the stress was showing. Summer 2010 started early and has been consistently hot - the daytime temperatures have been over 30ยบ for months. It has not rained since March. The UV readings have been over 11 on a regular basis and there has not been a dew for longer than I can remember. Night temperatures have been in the mid to high 20s save only when they too have been in the 30s. We have had heatwaves  too,  with 40+ temperatures for a week or so at a time every few weeks. And almost no breeze. No wind.

Weird shit has been happening all throughout 2010. Hindsight is amazing but we did notice all of this weird shit as it happened it just wasn't possible to predict what it all presaged.

Some of our olive trees flowered in January - and set. In january one of our dogs was attacked by ticks and fleas that should have died in the winter. At the end of January our avocado tree - the one we had nurtured from a stone some years ago - turned brown and died in only 3 days. 

The rest of our olives refused to flower. The walnut tree failed to put on leaf and I took it for dead. Months after they were due both sprang into some simulacrum of life but the olive blossom was sporadic and sparse and the walnut lacked any real conviction. By this time we had noticed a scarcity of both pollinators and wild flowers. The main crop olive trees had a small set eventually and the walnut finally took on a lightweight coat of paler green leaves but none of it was terribly convincing.

The mulberry trees produced almost no fruit and so did not carpet the ground with mushy fruit and buzzing bees. And so it has continued: some things are months early and some months late. All is spindly and weak and the weather refuses to vary. And now the cumulative effects are killing things off.

I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to write this. I've been, we've been, denying it for weeks but now it's written it's time to move on. We are fundamentally optimists. At heart we try to find the positive in life's buffetings but this really has us scratching our heads and looking at what looks dangerously like a glass that's more than half empty. 

There's a lesson sure enough and that is that you should never assume you have mother nature's number - she always has a curve ball left but we knew that already!

And there we are - digging to the very bottom of that half full glass there is a possible upside: any plants that make it through will be ideal for propagating as the only stock that is fit for prolonged drought conditions. It isn't much but it'll have to do for now and we shall have some sort of olive harvest albeit much reduced.

! 2010 IS A TRAGEDY !

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Aunty Who Turned Herself Green

Luke drives southward, The road is narrow and winding. One one side there is a sheer rock face towering above the little car. On the other a sheer drop. There is no edge nor kerb to the patchy asphalt.

Kate sits beside him in the passenger seat. She has the sheer drop on her side and refuses to look that way. She peers past Luke myopically at the gouged out rock face. Kate does not herself drive. She gradually becomes aware that Luke is checking his rear-view mirror more often than is strictly necessary - there are no cars behind them and there have been none for the last 20 km or so. Not since they left the little mountain village where they stopped for coffees.

Aunty Maureen is in the back seat, positioned to obscure the driver's rear view perspective. Aunty Maureen has never been to the Greek Islands before and stares fixedly through the windscreen. Looking neither left nor right she sits forward in the seat, almost breathing down Luke's neck.

It is hot in the car and sweat beads down Luke's cheek. Kate leans over and dabs at it with a tissue that comes away sodden. Luke turns up the aircon and shifts in his seat - haemorrhoids draw in the heat.. The aircon seems to make no noticeable difference and Kate passes him the cold water when they reach a straight section. Slugging back a mouthful of once frozen water he hand it back and again glances up at the rearview mirror. Kate feels Aunty Maureen lean forward and feels her breath. She hands the bottle back and concentrates on Luke who is by now checking his rearview mirror every few seconds.

Luke is aware that his concentration is slipping and shakes his head. His mouth is still dry, he shakes his head to clear it and a solitary drop of sweat from his forehead splats onto the windscreen. Not thinking, he switches on the wipers and curses under his breath. He switches them off as they scrape back to park in the layer of dust. He simply cannot believe what he is witnessing.

 Aunty Maureen is turning green as he watches her assiduously. He nods archly and raises a damp eyebrow to Kate who he knows is watching him, and asks solicitously,  "Are you feeling OK in the back there Maureen?".  

"I'm fine, pet - I could do with a comfort break - I'm a bit hot but - no I'm fine thank you". Aunty Maureen is now a shade of green somewhere between olive which is very appropriate as they descend through olive groves and khaki. And, finally, Kate looks round, looks directly at Maureen, and cottons on to what Luke has been hinting at.  She swivels back to Luke and nods knowingly,  "Can we stop at the next taverna Luke? I could do with a break too. And we need to check some things on the map".

Luke drives on. The road has straightened now and the driving is easier but the sun has strengthened. HIs T-shirt is firmly stuck to him and he shifts in his seat again but without achieving any relief. A sign appears for a taverna in 1000 meters and he relaxes. He checks the rearview mirror and gulps. He slips into the forecourt of a traditional blue and white painted taverna and parks up under a mulberry tree. He slips the car out of gear and pulls on the handbrake in welcome shade as a scream escapes Maureen in the back. Kate and Luke, seatbelts now released, turn round swiftly. 

Luke is sitting looking down to the Libyan sea and drinking a frappe - black with a little sugar. The girls are in the toilet. It is a pleasant enough little taverna and the frappe is fine, strong but good and cold. The girls have been in the toilet for some time now. Maureen was near hysterical and sobbing as Kate led her off but the taverna owner had scarcely appeared to notice as he shuffled from behind the till to take Luke's order. Luke had ordered only for himself - who knows how long this would take and in this heat ice melts quickly. He motions the owner over, orders a small beer, lights a cigarette and continues to wait.

Halfway down his beer Kate appears. Aunty Maureen is dogging her footfalls. Kate smiles wanly, unconvincingly. Maureen has paler streaks down her cheeks where her tears have flowed. They sit resignedly and Kate orders two glasses of raki - Maureen does not normally partake of alcohol but has decided to make an exception today - under the circumstances. Maureen is still green - a muddy pond bottom green. Not just her face, but pretty much all over.

Kate leans forward and in stage whisper describes how Aunty Maureen has been using a fake tanning foam since she arrived and how, on hearing of the clouds of mosquitoes common on the south coast had decided at the last moment, just before leaving the house, to slather almost half a tube of mosquito repellent on every exposed inch of herself. The green colour was clearly the result of a chemical reaction of some description, perhaps accelerated by the sun and the heat. Luke laughed. Kate scowled. Maureen burst into tears again.