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

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Rain is forecast for tomorrow and Tuesday. The clocks went back today and so we woke "earlier" to sunshine and stillness. A dew yet clung to the leaves and the ground-covering oxalis (green now, without its signature yellow flowers, brim packed with poisonous oxalic acid, it is easily mistaken for clover). The grove, dust dry and almost white two weeks ago, glowed green in the low sunshine and shimmered, gently contoured in its autumnal splendour. A transformation almost complete.

The log pile is covered now. Some logs are stored safely by the dormant stove beside the fire-lighters, matches and kindling resurrected from their summer grave. A fire is laid and ready in the grate. We are prepared. One razor blade remains: stands between we boys and our winter growths. Lavender cuttings are sprouting and G has cleaned out and deepened the run off channels around the plots. She has mounded and moulded, replanted and tidied. Putting the plots to rest for a while - only final pruning remains.

After a morning of preparing for winter, of putting summer behind us, of relaxing into autumn, we went to sit in the sunshine and to drink frappe. We sat and we planned. Planned and plotted out our futures when at once Georgos, the owner of Bellissimo came in: a huge grin on his newly clean shaven face and a sack on his shoulder that was marginally bigger. He tipped the sack and emptied a cascade of peanuts onto our table. Fresh peanuts. Wet peanuts as in wet walnuts. The peanut crop is ready.

Where Bellissimo stands now. And where the whole strip development that is Kavros now stands there used to be peanut fields. Plantations of groundnuts almost to the sea. Tourism for farming. Hotels and swimming pools and tennis courts for ground nuts. A new ground cover crop. A transformation almost complete. But still there are peanuts here and there. A past not quite eclipsed by a present reality.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Life imitates art

The tale of the painting that features in our recent Tabblo is worth re-telling.

We have been close personal friends of the celebrated artist Inge Clayton for many years now (last time we checked we also held the largest private collection of her works). We met her in 1998 and within a year or so we were posing for hr as models. And so our friendship grew through her work: we attended here exhibitions and we all met regularly for riotous, albeit decorous, social functions.

She had seen photographs of us on holidays, at functions and at other peoples' weddings. One day she phoned us clearly very excited and told us that her previous night's sleep had been disturbed by very graphic dreams of our wedding. Having re-assured her that we had no intention of marrying until my 70th birthday we passed the event off but 3 weeks later she rang again to tell us that she had painted one of her images of the wedding. Did we want to see it?

We saw it and we bought it - the idea of anyone else having such a very personal image was unthinkable. It is a large piece - perhaps half life size if not more - one of our largest - and is executed in oil on board. It hung in our London flat until we moved here in 2002 when it relocated with us (it now graces our bedroom - just behind the bath). It is an image that we have lived with for many years and one that we have looked upon daily. How strange then that it was so prescient, that she was so prescient.

Life clearly imitates art.

Friday, October 27, 2006


October 28th is a holiday in Crete. It is a holiday throughout Greece. It is a day that celebrates, unlike so many holidays in Greece, not a religious feast day but an event that changed Greek history and possibly European history. An event that reflects a massive national pride.

October 28th is OXI day: the day the Greeks as a man said "no!".

On October 28th 1940, at dawn, the Greek government (a dictatorship led by Ioannis Metaxas) was presented with an ultimatum made be Benito Mussolini and delivered by his ambassador to Greece.

Mussolini demanded that the Axis powers be allowed to enter Greece and to occupy "strategic locations". The particular locations were unspecified. The response came as a single word - OXI (No).

By morning the populace had taken to the streets shouting OXI and cementing among themselves a solidarity and spirit of resistance that would cost the Axis powers dearly. It would cost the Greek people themselves more dearly still.

As is the case with Russia the contribution that Greek resistance made to Allied victory in World War 2 is often glossed over or underestimated (certainly by comparison to the perceived value of the contribution of the USA).

The Greeks said NO and they are proud of it. They celebrate their national identity and character through OXI day in a way that they do not in their religious festivals and holidays.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Force of nature? Force of destiny?

You might have heard of the flooding here in the last days. Major flooding that started on Monday night was done by Wednesday and Thursday, although wet, was more promising. Friday dawned bright and dry with few clouds in the sky - just in time for the big event.

With hindsight, Tuesday was the big weather day: the day when cows were washed out to sea: the morning when the local petrol station forecourt turned into a lake nearly two metres deep: the day when topsoil washed off of hillsides and sloping land by the hundredweight; by the truckload: the day when roads disappeared under foot deep mud slides; mud that used to be field banks; the day that rivers burst their banks and reverse tsunamis flooded beaches and the sea.

Through Thursday lakes were to be found in fields and on roads: lakes were everywhere; a waterworld. Basements were being pumped: fountains of water exiting buildings and trying to find somewhere to run but simply settling for raising levels in extant temporary lakes. Boats needed where only trucks were to be had. Standing water everywhere. And pumped water meeting still water. A lake in front of the town hall and over to the bakery on the other side of the road that looked like a little simulacrum of Mont St Michel.

People and animals died. The damage is huge - and expensive. The area has been declared an emergency zone - a disaster zone. The people however have their chins up and we go about the process of cleaning up - temporarily and permanently. For now it is houses and commercial building being cleaned up. The beach - that looks now like the aftermath of a war - will have to wait.

And for us? How was it? Six continuous hours of mopping staved off all but the most minor, trivial, minor of depredations. But the farm? Another matter. Now that the ground has begun to dry we have been able to venture out and down to the river's edge. Or where the river's edge used to be. It is clear, at first sight, that some devastating force of nature has been at work here. The river that is our boundary kinks at the eastern limit of the fields beyond the olive grove, beyond the lavender plots. And it performs the same kink in reverse some 170 or 180 metres to the south of us 3 fields further up the valley. The sheer volume of water rushing down from the mountains, at some point ignored these kinks and flushed across in direct line. Judging by the clothing and debris in the mulberry trees a wall of water perhaps 2 and a half metres high came through the field ignoring the existing river bed: going its own way.

Bamboo plants have been ripped out: mature bamboo, and flushed who knows where. A carpet of boulders covers the alluvial bed that covers the area. Boulders from the river bed we presume: thinly covering the soil in our field; more thickly next door and thicker still, hiding the earth completely, where the breech began, in the field where they willfully cleared the bamboo bank cover last winter. Plegma fences have bent at 90 degrees in the horizontal plane before giving way and being flushed away, sheets of plegma hang on the trees and in the river bed: irretrievable. Branches and roots and uprooted plants have woven themselves around the bases of the olive trees and the geodesic dome which itself is a displaced structure. Beneath the boulders a fine light sand bed sits, showing in the wonderful swirls and tracks the path that this force of nature drew across the field.

Along the boundary moving north this wall this very torrent must have undercut the bank - quickly we think, for a chasm has opened where a huge stand of bamboo and a walnut tree stood as recently as last weekend. A yawning emptiness gapes now 12 feet down into where the river bed has disappeared under horizontal bamboo and perhaps one third of the land that slipped out of our field and back to nature.

Tomorrow the clean up has to begin. Before the next rains. Before the sheep come through and eat the lavender. Makeshift repairs for now. And in the long term? We do not know.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Over the long years we have been coming here we have witnessed many elections. Almost biblical in their nature: hundreds of thousands of Greeks transport themselves back to the villages of their birth to exercise their franchise. Planes and ferries are full. Transport systems creak and many local businesses close completely to allow people to vote. Among Greeks voting is seen as a civic responsibility rather than as a right and you must remember that these are a people who have, in recent history, been denied the vote.

And so this time around being entitled to vote ourselves felt something like a privilege. How different to the meaningless (in terms of required outcome) process that voting in the UK had become. To vote or not to vote had been a difficult decision for us. As relatively recent full time arrivals we were anxious to understand both the system itself and the perceptions of locals as to us voting. On the latter point we were surprised: every local Cretan we spoke to applauded the idea. Some even went as far as to say that it should be mandatory: as part of the community it was important, almost mandatory, they said, that we vote.

Registering to vote was, as are all things bureaucratic in Greece, complex and form laden but register we did: with 3 days to spare. Trying to assess what was on offer and from whom was more difficult but suffice to say that last evening we had a phone call from one of the mayoral candidates asking whether we wanted any part of his programme explaining or expanding!

After a week of rain, today dawned dry and with the sun playing peekaboo throughout the morning it seemed as though the old gods were smiling on the election. As in London our polling station was the local school - if only education and politics were more regularly linked than just at election time. And so - although the polling stations are open, literally and biblically, from dawn to dusk we drove off up to Kournas around one this afternoon (the local school is a good few kilometres away - and up a mountain).

We parked up by the church and as we left the car we noticed that everyone was in Sunday best rig. The smell of roasting lamb filled the nose. A middle aged man dressed head to toe in black stood on his drive. We had parked opposite his drive and when we checked politely whether it was OK to leave the car there he assured us that it was and enquired whether we were going to vote. Our answer clearly pleased him and he pointed the way down a steep path toward the school but not before telling us who we should vote for.

As we reached the foot of this steep and precarious descent the smell of roasting lamb grew more intense and a background hubbub of voices came to greet us. Men and women stood beside the path to the school talking in properly animated Greek fashion. Voices were raised and hands flew hither and yon in making points political and personal. Friends and acquaintances popped out of the huddles to welcome and congratulate us. Someone offered lamb - another a slice of pizza. Much shaking of hands and slapping of backs: much advice on how to vote and for whom.

Our names symbolically lined through on the very short page of xeni registered to vote and, our passports returned only after casting our secret votes, we left to much good humour and more congratulations. And somehow it felt, for the first time in a long while, as though we had done something both politically meaningful and civically responsible.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lifting the veil - or not

I was listening to Radio 4 this morning to a program about the wearing of the veil in Britain. It has been raining all day today after a spectacular show of thunder and lightning most all of the night. Purple flashes were bursting their light through closed shutters way into the early hours and thunder crashed around all night. Lightning out to sea - lightning over the mountains - lightning over the crest of the valley lighting the whole tapestry of olive groves, bamboo, mulberry and plane trees that is our diurnal vista like some pyrotechnic stage director.

A muslim woman interviewing women and girls throughout Britain about the veil and all done without pictures. Initially it occurred to me that this could not be communications as there were no faces on show - literally, it's radio remember - according to Jack Straw. The voices of young, predominantly working class women, nasally droned about Britain being for the British and veils weren't (and I recalled in parallel the numbers of women who wore veils on their hats when I was young). British muslim women with Black Country accents droned on about the religious necessity of not showing their faces (and I and I recalled in parallel stories of tribes that would not let early travellers take their photographs for fear of losing their souls). The phone rang half way through to interrupt and I did not communicate with our friend Chick because I could not see her face despite spending half an hour talking to her and even arranging to meet up as well as passing on information about our health. When I tuned back in there was a professional muslim woman speaking in a cultured, slightly northern voice, of the visible kinship and solidarity that she assured us that the veil connoted in public among muslim women (and I recalled in parallel the Orthodox Jews I mingled with daily in Hatton Garden -their long dark ringlets and big black hats and coats marking them out - and I then recalled the images of Jews in pre-war Germany in black and white contemporary photographs with their distinctive star of David armbands).

No answers.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


It has this really intelligent sounding name does the google program for generating ads to put on your blog or web site page: google adsense. The idea is that it "reads" the page that the ads are to appear on and tailors advertisements from appropriate advertisers on things mentioned in the text of the page. Sounds good huh?

Well not so fast. Slow down, I wrote a blog entry a few days back that expressed my cynicism about the value and contribution of charities to the well-being of the world. To be fair I came down pretty heavily "agin 'em". Next day and what adverts are appearing on my blog? Adverts from charities that's what.

The Old Git wrote a strong anti-religious piece in his blog at around the same time and guess what? Yup, he got ads from religious organisations on his blog the next day.

So it looks as though we can both end up hosting ads for things that we disapprove of simply by writing harshly about them. So tell me google tell me do - where's the "sense" in that? Adsense or nonsense?

I wonder whether I'll have ads for adsense tomorrow?

Saturday, October 07, 2006


I wrote recently about betrayal and the appropriate response to it. I did not talk much about the act of betrayal or its motivating forces in people and that was because I did not feel as though I had much insight into that side of things. Yesterday however, I came across the following in a recent book by Philip Roth that seemed insightful and thought that I would share it with you.

"... and then the torrent of betrayal. Every soul its own betrayal factory. For whatever reason: survival, excitement, advancement, idealism. For the sake of the damage that can be done, the pain that can be inflicted. For the cruelty in it. For the pleasure in it. The pleasure of manifesting one's latent power. The pleasure of dominating others, of destroying people who are your enemies. You're surprising them. Isn't that the pleasure of betrayal? The pleasure of tricking somebody. It's a way to pay people back for a feeling of inferiority they arouse in you, of being put down by them, a feeling of frustration in your relationship with them. Their very existence may be humiliating to you, either because you aren't what they are or because they aren't what you are. And so you give them their comeuppance.


Of course there are those who betray because they have no choice.


There are even those who have the brilliance of mind to practice the game of betrayal for itself alone. Without any self interest. Purely to entertain themselves."


The last thing that almost got me banned from an online forum was thread that I started calling for an end to religious tolerance. The venom and insults that it unleashed were frankly quite surprising to me. Self declared xtians and muslims heaped disdain upon both my person and my ideas. Not entirely surprising in retrospect- having been an atheist since 10 or 11 years old I am used to being abused and cursed by these "tolerant" people who demand my tolerance and have managed somehow to get such tolerance written into law. They do not have to respect or tolerate my views but I have to tolerate theirs. My views, you see are or are not religious, according to them as suits their needs. Asymmetric argumentation? Nothing new there then.

What seems to be lacking these days is an understanding that respect, and not just lip service to it, is, as our cousins in the US would say, a two-way street. Respect has to be reciprocated for it to be meaningful and so it is no use the Pope apologising to muslims about offense taken if a) the offended contingent do not accept a respectful apology and b) he uses the opportunity to take an intolerant and bigoted swipe at the shared enemy - the atheists - just to cement things. But of course the legislation that "guarantees" religious tolerance and the social compact amongst religions just do not apply to atheists.

Now it seems to me from my limited reading of the holy books of a couple of major religions that one of the reasons for this lack of tolerance in behalf of any religion to any other is that a fundamental part of its defining or "holy" text (no matter which religion you choose) will state categorically and incontrovertibly that it is the one true faith and that all other faiths are in error. Most will also prescribe, and in some cases will actively exhort followers to act out. quite hideous behaviour toward any and all unbelievers (atheists).

From this it follows, as Exodus follows Genesis, that the reciprocal tolerance that we were looking for in our second paragraph will not be forthcoming from religious adherents. It is simply beyond their defining principles. And as this is so self evidently true then I should like to propose a solution to this intractable problem. I would like to propose that we remove religion from public life altogether and move it firmly into the private domain where it rightly belongs (it is after all a mater of personal faith, and or belief). And, safely ensconced in the private domain the adherents of such personal faiths can mix with others of like mind or potential converts. They would then never be called upon to pay lip service to an ideal that their religion forbids them from living up to.

With religion a taboo subject in the public domain there would be no more politicking regarding superstitious beliefs. There would be no place for discussions as to whether religious law should replace the laws passed by elected government. There would be no place for special pleadings in behalf of religious beleivers. The law would once again become beautifully indiscriminating. And like sex, when confined to the private realm, anything should go amongst consenting adults and in any numbers. Atheists would for once no longer be subject to public excoriation and all religious believers would be free to say what they really believe about other religions.

We would need to make some fairly important adjustments to remove religion entirely from the public domain and public life. Taking religion out of education would be a very good place to begin. Abolish all faith based schools. Remove religion from the school curriculum. Abolish morning assembly and prayer. If parents wish to indoctrinate their children in their own chosen belief set then that becomes their private responsibility.

Some of the rather deeper and less obvious impingements of religion into the public domain would also need to be addressed. It occurs to me that we would have to abolish the act of succession, replace oaths with affirmations across the legal and judicial systems, remove all non binary references to religion in official documentation and statistics (are you religious) - with religion in the private domain there would be no useful purpose served by such information as is currently gathered.

In fact it seems that we would need a very careful nit combing of extant statutes and practices to achieve the true separation of faith and state that we purport to hold so dear but surely it is worth the effort?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Enver Straw

I remember as if it were only last year calling round to my mother's house most every day on my way to work to check the post. It was the early seventies and I was waiting for a visa. In those days you needed a visa to go anywhere even vaguely interesting. And this was a seriously interesting place that I firmly believed was about to grant me a visa. It was a place that I had only ever read about. It was a place that no person I had ever met had been to - or even thought of going to. It was a place that, to be perfectly frank, nobody outside of my immediate circle would ever want to go to.

I had read of this place in the Soviet Weekly. I had seen the lists of endless political treatises churned out by their illustrious and stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. The place was Albania. The first and only officially atheist state in history. Cold war Albania: an independent and isolated state at the edge of Europe. Albania fascinated me. I wanted to see what life was like there. Enver and his buddies were not issuing many visas i those days but they were issuing some, and my political affiliations should put me in with a fair shout . And so I kept checking and continued waiting. Returned to my childhood home to check the post almost every day.

One day it turned up. In a thick brown envelope stamped all over with customs permits and bearing a coat of arms of some description of the Albanian state and postmarked Tirhana. Inside was a thick, folded sheaf of roneoed papers with that odd chemical smell so familiar from schooldays and that strangely purple text on shiny paper. The bulk of the papers were either about the latest 5 year plan and how the workers were ahead of target already or alternatively about what you could not bring into the country. I searched in vain through this litter for my visa. There was no sign of it but I did finally turn up a hand written letter addressed to me personally and signed by an under-secretary or vice-consul or some other embassy luminary.

This personal letter informed me that the visa I had requested was issued but was being held for me at my local Albanian Embassy awaiting authorisation. My heart rose. And then sank as I read the final paragraph. The authorisation of my visa depended on me turning up at the embassy, in person. And why? I had, at the time I applied for the visa, they informed me, had a beard. I would be aware, this functionary opined, that beards were forbidden in Albania and rather than have to shave me when I arrived in Albania it would be less problematic for all concerned if I were to present myself to the embassy "sans barbe" as it were.

I didn't go to the embassy and I didn't go to Albania. I symbolically spat in the eye of Enver Hoxha and his state and if Jack Straw asked me to remove my beard, for example, before he was happy to carry out the job that I pay him to do I would spit in his eye - for real.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Last night's piece brought varied and odd responses so let me immediately clear up a few issues raised by people commenting on the piece.

It was not my intention and at no point did compare the American system with any other, favourably or otherwise. The idea that I was somehow praising the UK system would be laughable if the commentator knew me at all well. The UK "safety net" has been, sadly, allowed to deteriorate in the past 30 years and you have only to talk to any of the poverty stricken pensioners scratching their last years out over there to confirm that it is a sorry and ineffective safety net these days. Were it subject to Health and Safety legislation it would surely be closed down. Under the Sale of Goods Act one would be able to claim ones money back. So - no I was not comparing the US system unfavourably with the UK system. They are both clearly inadequate.

It was most definitely not my intention to solicit charity for poor Ric and his wife - charity is not the answer to systemic problems - not in the US nor in the UK. It is often the case that charities spring up in response to such systemic failures but there is no convincing evidence that they do anything to address the causes. It can, however, be convincingly argued that they actually salve sufficient numbers of consciences and alleviate the consequences of a sufficient though small number of cases to ensure that the causes themselves are never addressed. Has Oxfam solved the problem of famine once and for all? How is it that cancer research in the UK is funded from charities (there are 620 cancer charities in the UK alone)?

And if charities are private responses to systemic problems as I conjecture then consider the following from the Guardian: There are more than 185,000 registered charities in England and Wales. The number is rising by 5,000 a year. As you read this, another charity will be created somewhere in the country. So - no I was not soliciting charity for Ric.

Once more however, the man that hit the nail on the head was young Liam. The thing that irked me most about Ric's situation was not that it happened - as our friends across the pond often say "Shit happens". It was rather that Ric blames himself for this failure, these circumstances. That personal sense of failure is the dark flip side of the American Dream. It is a fundamental of the dream - if anyone can be anything in the American system then it follows that if your life is a mess that it is your fault. And as Liam so perceptively points out "As it is, he sees himself as a failure - but that is misplaced, and he must ignore all such negativity otherwise it will completely immobilise him, mentally and physically, making his plight worse." Nail on the head" prize of the day goes to Liam.

Just for completeness my own take on Ric's situation is that a solution would be to get a court order to ensure that his ladlady accepts his monthly rent in weekly or fortnightly installments. When I was last living in the UK I believe that the Citizens Advice Bureau could have arranged such action - in the US I have no idea as to how this could be organised but surely one of my American readers does. Barry?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Looking the beast in the eye

I am constantly griping about the evils of American free market capitalism: its effects both domestic and international. I know about the lack of a safety net. I know it intellectually. Today I came upon it eye to cold, uncaring eye. And it scares me shitless. I have known Ric online for some years now and he is as we say in the UK "sound as a pound". His life has been spinning downward for a while and there seems to be nothing to stop him and his lady from bottoming out. How in the name of humanity can we applaud a system that gives rise to this? How can we fund armies to bestraddle the world and impose this system on anybody else? How can we aspire to such depths.

Read it and weep