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

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Real Olive Farm - a pre-solstice update

Now that the first of the drupes, and there are a lot of drupes, are beginning to turn purple (usually at the sharp end first) and the flesh is nice and plump it is time for a pre-solstice update.

Olive farming is a strangely inactive job, especially the way we do it. Since we are organic we do not apply herbicides or pesticides (and thereby hangs another tale) and since we follow Fukuoka we do not apply fertilisers or plough beneath the trees. Nor do we irrigate the trees.  What then, you might reasonably ask, do you do? Well there's the pruning. And there's the cleaning under the trees in preparation for harvest, after all nobody wants to rip expensive olive nets on unruly brambles and suckers. And then there's the actual picking. And I guess the rest is about watching and waiting. Right now we are waiting. We cleaned under the trees by hand  in October and since then the oxalis has been carpeting the grove and keeping almost everything else at bay. 

If you follow the lavender way you will know that we had a very odd summer this last year with high humidity and no heatwaves and that those conditions produced a marked downturn in essential oil yield from the lavender. The rains started early this autumn and we have had plenty of rainfall since to flesh up the olives but we are currently waiting for a really cold snap to turn that water into oil and so far there is no sign of that. We had hoped to harvest before Xmas this year (and many of the groves around us have been harvested already - hearsay evidence is that yields are very low) but we are now looking toward January and the halcyon days for harvest.  But if we don't get the cold then we will wait. It is a balancing act - the later we leave it the higher the eventual acidity of the oil but we figure we can wait until early March and still come in under 0.5.

Fingers are crossed and we are holding our nerve, we'll let you know how it goes on.

Another Tale

When we applied to DIO for organic certification we thought there would be no change to our practices but they took particular interest in how we controlled olive fruit fly. When we originally moved on-site the local council was in the habit of coming around the valley and into the olive groves and spraying all of the olives spasmodically 3 or 4 times a year. We, not being locals, had no idea what they sprayed with and neither, it turned out, did any of the local olive farmers - "chemicals" they opined. Wanting to be organic we wanted to know more and so we went to see the head of agriculture for the prefecture to find out. Evanthia was a nice lady and efficient but she poo poohed our concerns about what the local council sprayed on the trees - "It's perfectly safe. It just kills the fruit fly." she reassured us and eventually she managed to produce a pharmaceutical label from said standard, safe, treatment. The information on the label was remarkably sparse but the trade name was large and proudly displayed. After a long discussion and a lot of Evanthia shaking her head we agreed to put up DO NOT SPRAY signs, to inform the local council that we we wanted nothing to do with the spraying regime and to keep all access gates to the grove locked. She promised to send some men around to advise us on alternative fruit fly control procedures within the month or at least before March (this was December) and we in turn promised to let her know what we discovered about "the chemicals".

In those days we were the only people we knew who were regular internet users and so our researches were pretty rigorous and much more objective than anything  that the locals had access to. Not wishing to have any large american pharmaceutical company litigating against us I shall omit any detail that might identify either the chemical or the manufacturer but what we discovered was genuinely horrific: said standard, safe, treatment chemical was an organophosphate - not any old organophosphate but one which had been generally banned in the US in 1968 when it was implicated in wide scale, long term, central nervous system poisoning and damage among users. It had been withdrawn from general sale in the US, the UK and most of Europe shortly thereafter although it was still available for very specialized use in the US but under some very controlled circumstances - full body suits, breathing equipment and full clearance of the areas to be sprayed (our local council sprayed it from the back of a tractor and the operatives wore only shorts and t-shirts). When we looked further into it it transpired that the company in question was still selling the stuff widely in Greece (the only European country where it was available), Africa and the Middle East.

We passed the information on to Evanthia and eventually her men turned up at the farm.  They brought with them a selection of beautiful open ended glass jars and a big bag of ammonium sulphate. For our population of trees, they told us, we would need 3 of these jars placed here here and here (they identified the appropriate trees for us and showed us where within the tree, out of the direct sun and yet low in the crown, to hang them)and filled with an ammonium sulphate solution before the olive flowers set. We should monitor the jars for evaporation and crystallization and keep them re-filled until the onset of the rains.

And so we had carried on ever since: repelling all spraying rigs and persevering with the jars so imagine how surprised we were when DIO informed us that ammonium sulphate was not cleared for use on organic farms! It's not as if we were spraying it around, we were using it in a trap and it never came into contact with the soil or the trees or the fruit save perhaps by evaporation. What then, we asked, should we use against the fruit fly? Surprise surprise we were given the OK for the use of gamma or delta pyrethroids. Well, forewarned is forearmed and once bitten twice shy, so I did the research and guess what?  These pyrethroids are "generally harmless to human beings"  but  "toxic to fish" and  "toxic to most beneficial insects such as bees and dragonflies" - heigh ho! " We are doing without until we can find something less hazardous to our ecosphere and bearing the risk of fruit fly depradations (doesn't look too bad so far).  

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review - If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi

Primo Levi started his writing career before his incarceration in Auschwitz although it would seem only two short stories, which later appeared in The Periodic Table, survive. His ouvre consists mainly of memoirs and poetry. It wasn't until 1984 when  "If Not Now, When?" was written that Levi as a writer emerged. In this towering book we finally hear his proper authorial voice.

His sentences are beautiful and his paragraphs so well balanced that reading this work is almost effortless and at the same time almost endlessly satisfying and while the book ostensibly chronicles the wanderings and adventures of a group of mainly Jewish partisans in the rubble of the rout of Third Reich forces in Europe at the end of WWII there are other ways to read it. It is only when Levi finally turned to the novel form that he grudgingly gave the reader a valid role in his writing.

Although Levi was lionised for his memoirs and essays the justification for such heavy praise was, in this writer's opinion, chiefly based in the guilt that the non-Jewish readership felt after WWII and a fellow feeling among literary critics but this late work shows Levi in a more reflective and less polemical mind.   

Where his previous work concentrated on memorialising the horrors of the German project to annihilate Jewry "If Not Now, When?" examines the nature of resistance and integrity in the face of overwhelming circumstances and emphasises the humanity of its characters - the rich, the generous, the flawed, and sometimes hateful humanity of them.    

I was left wondering as I read this superb work whether Levi had finally come to terms with the reality that the holocaust had been something other than the unique, singularly evil, historically anomalous event that he had always portrayed. By 1984 Vietnam and the Cambodian genocide were already historically attested. By 1984 the disgraceful treatment of the Palestinians  was into its third decade and the first Lebanon War was over. The Sabra and Shatila Masacre was history by 1984.

For this reader the regular references throughout  "If Not Now, When?" to Palestine as the ultimate escape destination for his brave partisans are signifiers. His partisans talk of Palestine but never the Palestinians. Palestine is theirs by right. In Palestine the horrors of the holocaust can finally be laid to their proper historical resting place - burnt into the racial memory of mankind, never to be repeated and in this light the title and its context is oddly, macabrely ironic.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book Review - Vanishing Point by Aristoteles Nikolaidis

Three pages into this fascinating book I found that it was taking me a very long time to read each page. Published in 1975 it won Greece's very first National Book Award for a novel and documents the supposed disappearance of an individual during the times of the Greek civil war and general unrest after world war 2. So why was it taking so long? It wasn't until I came upon myself late at night mentally rephrasing sections of text painstakingly into a modern voice that  I worked out what was wrong. I could almost hear the author's text struggling to get out of a frighteningly wooden translation and have its say.

Let me say straightway that I thought of giving up there and then. But what I had already read piqued my interest so much that I persevered. The underlying book rolls gracefully along examining the nature of identity and reality, starting with, but not limiting itself to, the identity of the narrator while the juggernaut of the translation chugs on above it. The final section covers the very personal nature of paranoia and leaves the reader wondering about the possibility of any coherent reality in the 20th century.

I would love to read a sympathetic translation of this book - I think it is an important book of modern Greek literature - an important novel of 20th century European literature. I would not recommend it though, to any but the brave in its current form.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Black Olive 2

Establishing shot : a large, well maintained villa surrounded by extensive gardens (think Chateau Gilly). Swimming pool - a surreal blue to one side - two male figures are visible. One end of the house has a turret or tower. Coral is shown, back to camera wearing a blindingly white bath robe and shabby red espadrilles, walking into the front door, a large pair of arched  doors surrounded by stone lintels. Zoom into the archway - shot darkens as she travels down a dark corridor. Pull back and pan left to a stone in the arch - vague shape visible - zoom in to roughly carved figure of a bee on a lavender blossom. Cut to Coral at exactly the same place in the corridor as when we left her. Her right hand reaches out and across to the door handle to her left and lightning cuts the shot - she disappears into the room - fade to black.

Interior shot of study - a triple aspected room but only one shutter is ajar. A dark green room with gold paintwork and ceiling. The walls are lined with bookshelves - mainly empty. Zoom in on  a small stand of books - pan the spines - one female author only. Cut to Coral sitting at her desk staring into a computer screen. Zoom over her shoulder - during the zoom she becomes flatter almost two dimensional. On the screen is a Facebook page populated by crude cartoon characters. From here on the film looks like a cross between real life and classic comic strip (think Scott McCloud  - meets Edward Tufte). Sound of a skype call coming in - focus as skype notification window pops open and is clicked to accept. Two windows side by side open - Coral right and a shadowy woman sitting in part darkness left. Cut back and forth in talking heads style - panning and zooming during the following dialogue.

C: Hi Jane, how are things with you?
J: Everything is good here Coral - how is the new book coming? Don't forget we're due first draft by the start of August. Is that doable?

C puts her hands to her face - the old hands and as she takes them away we have a smiling young C.

C: It's going very well Jane - it'll be ready - don't worry about it - would I let you down? ... have I ever? I'm putting a chapter down every couple of weeks.
J: You aren't letting the facebook thing get in the way are you? You seem to be on there a lot.  I'm looking after that end of the operation.
C: I like the feedback - they all love me over there - it's good for my ego ... but ... it doesn't get in the way ... promise
J: I've got you another book fair gig ...
C interrupts: they are known as literary festivals not book fairs Jane ...
C smiles broadly and her face lights up
C; you got me Hay? Tell me you got me Hay and I'll love you forever.

J leans into the screen and points a finger threateningly
J: you aren't ready for Hay ... when you're ready I'll let you know but that isn't now ... get me? I got you Appledore ---------- now say thank you

Shot of Coral, the older Coral looking away abashed ... suddenly she becomes animated.

C: Hold on Jane there is someone requesting membership - I'll just have a look ...

We come out of the screen and look over C's shoulder again
C minimizes J's window and brings up FB again - an FB profile picture (the Costa Gavras image but in Scott McCloud fashion). 

C mumbling to herself: guy ... lavender ... olives ... Crete ....

We see her click on the accept button and then she reopens Jane's window.

J: Coral stop messing around with facebook and get your head into this conversation - I'll decide who we admit
C: ... but this was a guy Jane ... we don't have enough guys ... I don't want to be known as a girly writer ... anyway, I accepted him ... he's got olives and a lavender farm and he's in Crete ... he's our new demographic
J: All right ... he sounds OK ... not a stalker ... now about Appledore ... it's in Devon somewhere ... that's the west country right?
C: I DO know where Appledore is Jane ... even if you don't ... but I've never heard of their literary festival ... when is it?
J: September ... October
C: OK OK I'll do it but when do I get Hay?
J leans into the screen again - menacingly -
J: damn right you'll do it ... I booked you so you'll do it miss ............. and ..... you still haven't said thank you
J: I'm waiting ...
C sheepishly: Thank you Jane ........... who else is doing Appledore?
J: Oh Coral I don't know ... a pair of has been politicians ... the guy in the white suit and some ex-commie ... oh yeah and the guy who used to be Children's Laureate - what's his name? Oh never mind ... It's not bad ... B list stuff but you'll be fine.
J rushes on
J: Anyway darling I have to go I'm due at the office so I'll love you and leave you and you just get your nose back down to the olive stone OK.
Her window goes blank and the call hang up.
Shot over Cs shoulder looking at her own window forlornly on screen.

C: Shit , shit,  shit.

Fade out. 

Monday, July 06, 2009

Black Olive - first scenes

Tracking shot - deep blue mediterranean sea - the bay of Cannes - heading toward the beach - think The Big Blue opening - thru the beach at a slower pace - lots of topless women and muscle bound bronzed men - cameos for RdeN and Beatrice Dalle and anyone else we can rustle up (possibly Christopher Timothy? nice ironical tone there) - across the croissete - a red Citroen DS with a pink paint stain on the bonnet that has a hood ornament crosses the lens left to right with Jean Reno driving (wearing the Enzo specs from TBB) - camera passes into an upward sweep through varied appropriate landscape and into a dense olive grove ( lots of drupes)  where the blinding light of Southern France dims. Camera at this point is maybe 3 feet from the ground - a lizard scuttles across right to left - we detect a figure at the left of screen - back shot surrounded by bougainevillea as we close in and finally stop 4 feet away. 

Hold for 5 seconds as Coral slowly turns to camera. Set up is identical to Alice's Olive goddess. Zoom to gnarled, stained hands - long nails - perfect French manicure - pan to right hand ring finger - ring in the shape of a treble clef - delicate against the finger - pan up - past cleavage to face - smiling Mona Lisa like - no make up - close in. Very close. Lightning cuts the frame behind Coral top to bottom - fade to the young Coral - and back - dissolve to Alice's Olive goddess and back again - and again - her mouth opens and with a slight delay - as in a badly synched movie we hear "Michel, Michel, is the pool clean?".

Cut to Michel by the pool - he is supervising Quasimodo who is wearing an odd, incongruous hat and who is scooping dead bees from the water - zoom to dead bees as the scoop approaches - a dead bee fills the entire screen. Hold for 3 seconds - focus on the wet hairs on the body - switch to B/W. Cut to Michel's face. His mouth opens - same time lag. Close shot of moustache. "Nearly - perhaps 5 more minutes" - he says this in French - volume is up 3 settings- subtitles slide in from the right. Quasimodo continues to scoop bees. The pool is very very blue. Camera  zooms in on and then into the pool between the bee bodies.

Cut to camera reversing out of the water. A lithe body splashes past. Michel and Quasimodo are watching the young Coral doing lengths of breast stroke from side on - as are we. Her hair billows out behind her - only the ends are wet. Shot from Coral's viewpoint -  a strange looking woman stands at the end of the pool - hair long, grey and very much awry. The young Coral turns at the end of the pool ignoring the psychic. Cut to psychic's POV - she shouts something incomprehensible as Coral reaches the opposite end. A bee crosses the camera right to left. Coral turns and it is the current Coral who comes back toward the camera. She pulls herself out of the pool - psychic POV - C is so close that the image blurs - she shakes her hair.
Talking heads shot.

"What is it?"
"Mrs D you must be very careful ... trouble is coming your way ... I dreamt of you last night ... there is a man ... he will turn your life upside down ... a man with blonde hair ... but he is not of this world ... you have not met him yet ..."
Coral cuts her off - holding her hand up
"Slow down ... explain ... what are you saying ... who is this man that I should be ... what is it I must be careful about ... ?" She runs her hand through her hair, shaking droplets off.
"He is fair but he is dangerous ... he also lives with olives ... be very careful ... he has powers ... he can bring the nearly dead back to life ..."
Enter left Michel looking distressed
Corall, what is it? You have gone so pale ... so wan ... what is it ... what has this woman ... this witch,  said?"
The psychic turns to Michel. Switch between M and Psychic shots,  to C reaction shots

"I dreamt of her .. there is danger monsieur ... there is a man coming to her ... he will turn her life upside down ... he will loose the spirits ... chaos will be hers"
"You had a dream ... had you been drinking again? ... the pastis? ... you should stay away from it .. you know it gives you wild dreams ... " his voice rises "Quasimodo! Take this lady back to her house ... she needs to rest ... she is .... not herself"

Enter left Quasimodo, his hat is pushed back, he is mopping his brow and squinting. He puts his arm around the psychic's shoulder and leads her off left
"Come on ma'm'selle ... you need to rest Monsieur Michel says so."

Camera follows them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mediterranean Diet revisited

Back in 2005 I wrote an article for a British magazine about the diet and longevity of the Cretan population. On hearing recently that Greece is set to top next years European obsesity tables I thought to check out what I had written all those years ago so I dug it out this morning and oddly prescient it proves to have been.

Given that the original work that gave rise to the notion of "The Mediterranean Diet" as being a healthy lifestyle choice was undertaken on Crete some 40 years ago perhaps this reprint might prompt some further thought on diet in general.

Rather than update the piece as a whole let me just note a few developments since the original publication:
Starbucks and McDonalds have opened here;
food shops carry much more processed and convenience food than heretofore;
internet gaming cafes have become prevalent;
many of the traditional eating patterns have been disrupted;
Pavlos died peacefully last year of heart failure;
Jiannis still cycles to and from the village most days.

Here is the original article:


The grapes are in. The proto raki is ready. The olives are clearly visible on the trees, their leaves showing silver in the autumn breezes. Georgi Nikolarakis leans back on his chair and smiles, his eyes light up. Here is a man about to mount a hobby horse. The Cretans like little better than holding forth: unless it is eating. Of course this inevitably means that they have learned to combine the two. Given that the topic here is food then we have a pretty perfect discourse coming.
Georgi, an avuncular man with a full beard and a weather beaten complexion, opened his taverna back before Georgioupolis was a tourist destination, when only independent travellers and beleagured hippies turned up at this end of the 11 mile beach that is the Gulf of Almyros.

"Why," I have asked him "do Cretans live so long?"

"Maybe they do and maybe they don't. The last generation lived longer than my generation and as for the kids today --- who knows: they eat so much rubbish! When I was a child my mother would give me stakka for my breakfast: spread on a slice of black bread. Only rich people had white bread. (Stakka is the solidified cream from sheeps milk and is something like condensed milk but stronger in flavour. All brown breads in Crete are called black.). If I was lucky I'd have honey spread on top. My aunty used to live in Xania (the nearest city) and sometimes she would bring white bread for us, it was a special treat but Mikhaili's mother, Mikhaili from Creta Corner, used to bake a bread from rye that had lots of hard bits in it and all the kids would smell it from far away and come and beg for it. Bread is at the centre of every Cretan meal. Bread and olives. And salad. Fresh salad from the garden."

The garden in a Cretan village home is always given over to herbs, vegetables, fruits. and salad crops. The flowers are grown in tubs, pots, old tins. The soil is reserved for things you can eat: and that includes chickens and maybe even a pig. The flowers are extraordinarily well cared for, dazzlingly beautiful, and ingeniously grown but the garden is strictly reserved for edibles.

"The workers in the villages," Georgi continues, "often started the day with no more than a hunk of bread, some olives and a glass of malotiras (mountain tea). And then they would go off to work with maybe a piece of cheese and another hunk of bread in their pockets. You remember Pavlos? Pavlos the drinker. He was a big drinker. He was always in Tito's: always drinking wine but he always had bread and some cheese in his pocket that he would eat while he was drinking. When he was eighty some he was knocked down by a car; they said he was drunk but when wasn't he? When he died they cut him up and the doctors said he had the liver of an eighteen year old. Even my granny who was 106 and a teetotaller had a glass of wine with her breakfast: fresh juices and a glass of wine. She married my grandfather when he was 82 and she was 28 and they had 5 children - all healthy. The stakka, is good for the potency. So are artichokes; you just pull off the spiky leaves and eat the artichoke raw with lemon and salt. They turn your lips and tongue brown and they make you windy but they are good for the heart and the potency."

What about meat? Does meat play a big part in Cretan diet? Lamb is eaten everywhere in tavernas but what of the village people? Do they eat much meat?

"Mountain people have always eaten meat once a week and fish once a week. And snails. Snails are good for cancer: it's the calcium. Do snails count as meat? Most families would have a cow or two and some chickens and maybe a pig. And when you kill an animal you eat everything. You don't waste anything and you don't feed bits of the dead animal to the other animals like they did in England. Look what that got them. Now, with the common market, it's become more difficult. Rules about who can kill animals makes it difficult. I would never eat the liver and spleen from a butcher shop animal. I don't know what it's been eating. When your neighbour killed out a pig or a goat you knew it was clean. The same with the chickens. Why are chickens in supermarkets all the same size? Why am I not allowed to buy eggs from my neighbour? I know his chickens are happy and properly free range. It makes me angry, you know, when English people say Greek food is greasy. Look at all the dead animal fat they put into their gravy for the Sunday roast. Here in Crete we have the best olive oil in the whole world and that's what we cook with."

So what do they eat when they aren't eating meat? The Italians have their pasta, the Indians their rice, and the Irish have their potatoes. What are the staples of the Cretan diet?

"We still have seasonal eating here you see. Soups and pulses in the winter and fruits and vegetables in the summer. When things are in season you eat them. People forget how many soups we eat. In the winter we have bean soups (such as fassoulatha made with harricot beans), chick pea soups, lentil soup (fakes) , potato and leek soup. In summer we might have tomato or chicken with rice and lemon, - not so heavy. Once, some years ago there was a monk here from a Russian monastery. He had pure white hair and a big white beard like your Santa Claus. Here in the taverna. He was over a hundred and was on his first holiday. He had a translator with him. He asked for soup and I told him we didn't have soup today. "Nonsense," he said "do you have onions? Courgettes? Potatoes? Garlic?" Of course I had all of them. "Well then", he announced, "you have soup. Twenty minutes is all it takes!" And so he had his soup and I ate with him and we drank a little raki together. He was a really interesting man. He had lived most of his life in a monastery but he knew about life".

This fascination with other peoples' lives and this willingness to sit and eat and drink with them while they tell their tales and put the world to rights is another central rite of the Cretan eating experience and one that Georgi is sure contributes to the well being and long life of the Cretans. A good meal with Cretans will take hours and sometimes drifts into the early hours without you noticing.

"It's not good for you, you know, all this sitting for five minutes in front of the television and wolfing food down. How can you enjoy it? If you do one thing then do it properly. If you are going to eat you sit down together and you eat what you need and you drink a little wine and you talk and then you have company and you feel good and if you feel good you live longer and you enjoy your life. Even the old people here feel useful and wanted. They have stories and they have wisdom. They know all of the herbs and fruits and potions that keep you healthy. They are always welcome to eat with you. They don't rush off for antibiotics when they don't feel so good. They'll make some tea with special herbs, maybe chamomile or wild marjoram or oregano or dikti , or they'll take some fish soup, or perhaps have a massage with the lamp oil or proto-raki. Petrol is best for the massage but dangerous...

As if to demonstrate, and in that magical mode of serendipity that seems to go with the langourous life in Crete, there is a shout from outside the taverna. Georgi's dad Pavlos has just walked down the mountain from his home in Mathes, maybe 6 or 7 kilometers, and asks if Georgi wants bread from the baker. Pavlos will buy a 2 kilo loaf and walk back home. Pavlos is 86. Of course, his friend Jiannis could have got the bread. He cycles up and down to Mathes every day on an old sit up beg bicyle with Sturmey Archer gears, but Pavlos doesn't like to take advantage. "He's an old man after all" - Jiannis is 88. At this point we finish our chat because Georgi is going to get some food for Pavlos to take back with him. A yiouvetsi, (lamb cooked with greek noodles) some lentil soup and a bowl of xorta, another of the magic ingredients of the Cretan diet. Xorta is a dish prepared from mountain greens: often cooked from 3 types of wild plant that grow freely on the mountainside and in the olive groves it is served with olive oil, lemon and oftentimes potatoes. "Since my mother died", says Georgi "my father doesn't bother much cooking for himself. I don't know what we'll do when he gets old".

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Elgin Marbles - the problem is in the plural

The new museum of the Acropolis in Athens is open now and it is, by all accounts, a truly wonderful building but the opening has been a sad occasion in one way. The so-called Elgin Marbles are still in London and there is no indication that "they" will ever be returned. And so, all of the old arguments have be rehashed and foisted upon us as if they were newly minted.

The story such as it is is simple: Athens was under Ottoman rule and the Ottomans were destroying a lot of the history that they found. The then British ambassador, said Lord Elgin, was a bit of a wily old Scot and so he knocked off a few chunks of marble from a magnificent frieze in order to decorate his own historic pile back in the UK. Sadly he ran into heavy financial waters and flogged them off to the British Museum at a knock down price. And there they remain to this day.

It occurs to me that a major part of the problem here is to do with language. Let me explain. All discussions of this thorny problem refer to either The Elgin Marbles or The Parthenon Marbles. Note the use of the plural: as if all of the fragments were stand alone pieces. Well, that just ain't so. The Parthenon frieze, from which these chunks of carved pentellic marble were ripped untimely, was and is a single work of art. It was designed as a single piece. It was executed as a single piece. And until Elgin's hired vandals got to work it had remained a single piece for several centuries.

Imagine if Elgin or one of his fellow ambassadors had cut the face out of the Mona Lisa and flogged it off to the National Gallery. Who could sensibly maintain that the 2 pieces should not be re-united?  No person in their right senses.

It's time to put back together what our forebears put asunder. There is NO reason not to and every reason so to do. And maybe if we all stop talking about the marbles (plural) and start talking about the Parthenon Frieze (singular) we shall all stop obscuring the real issue with a linguistic trick.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A New Short Story - part 7

Vantaris leaps into the churchyard where Gilbert waits with the ropes. Gilbert rubs his eyes and thinks immediately of the great god Pan -  the great god Pan is dead he repeats to himself.  "Which one?" Vantaris takes a short rope from the proffered bunch and hobbles the goat by its hind legs. He lifts the young goat from his shoulders like Jason removing the golden fleece and puts him gently down by the church door. The kid struggles briefly against the hobble which is attached to his upper thighs but soon settles. He pets the kid behind the ears before coming to sit himself beside Gilbert under the mulberry stand and pulls off his boots. He trousers are covered in burrs and grass darts, he is coated in a pale red dust but his smile is broad.  From his back pocket he pulls a crumpled red pack of Sante and offers one to Gilbert who scans the blonde woman on the box lid before taking one. They light their cigarettes and a silence descends as they savour the first hits of the smoke to their throats. "Tsikourdia?" asks Vantaris? "Why not?". Gilbert is still coming round. Vantaris strides over to the church door and reaches up above the door lintel  whence he produces a rather simple Yale type key. He opens the door and disappears into the gloom. emerging moments later with a plastic water bottle of clear spirit in his left hand and a long thin grey stone in his right.

They sip in turn from the tsikourdia, the native Cretan spirit. "OK Vantaris, what's the plan? Does the kid have to go to the vet in Vrysses? Becky will be expecting me back - can you manage now? You can give me the rope back on Thursday." Vantaris produces two knives from one of the infeasible number of pockets that beset his trousers, one of which Gilbert is sure he recognises. "That curved knife ..." "Yes, Becky gave it to me ... said it was her very first lavender knife ... said it was blunt now and you didn't know how to sharpen it ..." Vantaris strokes the curved blade carefully across the stone concentrating intently. "But her knife had a pale blonde handle ... beech I think ... but that one -  -  ..." Vantaris laughs but sticks at his task "Blood Gil, blood will darken wood ... I changed the tip a little ... reground it ... it is a wonderful knife for cutting throats now ...". Gilbert now looks carefully at the other knife and feels a prescient twist in his stomach - it is a skinning knife, of that there is no doubt. He looks at Vantaris who looks up, his task complete, and holds him with his dark brown eyes and nods. He takes up the second knife and reapplies both it and himself to the stone. "Not here surely?  ... the pappas will go berserk ..." Silence save for the blade on the stone, a distant cicada, the first Gilbert has heard this year, and a goat bell somewhere. Eventually Vantaris lays the knife and the stone to one side.   

"You think I care what some black shrouded eunuch thinks? With their new religion? With their canting? With their churches built of our stones? With their gospels written in our language?  You think I give a straw?  My people were killing animals here before their Jesus was born ... before the Ottomans ... before the Venetians even... before the siege of Troy ... back in the times of Minos ... long before that arch-clown Evans "discovered" Knossos and made of it some archaeological joke? My people were in Egypt mummifying their Pharoahs when the Jewses were captives, slaves. Fuck the preist ... and fuck the truck he drives in on." Vantaris laughs long and loud. "Hey Gil, you know Zeus was born here? Of course you know. Near Psiloritis. You know how we know? Because Zeus killed his father and fucked his sister - how could he be anything other than Cretan? A Sfakian."

"Enough?" he says waving the nearly empty bottle?" Gilbert nods assent and Vantaris gets up and puts the bottle and the stone back in the church, locks it, and puts the key back in its hiding place. He bends and strokes the neck of the goat that stands perfectly still. He looks across to Gilbert "Come on Gil ... killing time ... for Manousos's baptism"

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A new short story - part 6

The incline is steep, Gilbert estimates perhaps 1 in 3, and soon his right leg has turned an icy cold. He is thankful for Vantaris' arm around him. "He was a big goat - massive eggs huh?" he turns and smiles at Vantaris who surprises him with a scowl. "The goat is strong ... plenty of power but ... but he only gets weaklings ... and his owner ... that Sifis ... he is a scoundrel ... is that correct? ... scoundrel? ... he has never served the same herd twice with that goat ... no repeat business ... but Sifis ships him around the island to poor goat herds who have not heard." "Scoundrel is a good word Vantaris, very good. And very apt."

The ice in Gilbert's leg has turned to hot needle points but he disregards it  -  they are entering the churchyard. Now they are in shade. "Give me a cigarette Gil." Gilbert reaches out a pack of Assos and they both light up, gulping the smoke hungrily and smiling. "How many packs these days Gil? When are you going to stop?" Vantaris' head jerks back and his full throaty laugh echoes off the church. "Did you write about the church yet? And the magic tree?"   "Not yet ... well yes ... and no ... we are writing it now ... one pack, perhaps one and a half ... two when you help ... and I'll stop smoking the day after I die ... come on ... tell me what you need the rope for ..." Vantaris puts a finger to his lips and cocks his head to one side to listen. "Sit down Gil and rest your leg ... you will see ..." And then he is gone, bounding up the sheer rock face among the goats, his ragged boot laces trailing him like the tails of Chinese stunt kites.

Gilbert wakes from a dreamless sleep. All Gilbert's sleeps are dreamless. He peers through the basketweave of the hat that covers his face and gently rouses himself. The sound of goat bells rings around his head. Removing the hat completely he is amazed to see that his legs are covered in softly yellow butterflies. He is entranced and beguiled by this gentle blanket that delicately takes to the air air as he stirs and shows a pale green underside. He thinks of Marquez and grins at how appropriate is the word butterfly for these beautiful insects the colour of unadulterated butter (Gonepteryx cleopatra - ) and wonders about the origins of the Greek word petaloutha. His Marquez moment is brutally broken by Vantaris' huge, bell-like voice, "Gil, get the rope ready". The sun has passed over and he can clearly see Vantaris loping down a near vertical slope with a brown kid held around his neck like a living shawl - he is holding all four of the kid's feet, two in each hand. "Look ma, no hands ...", Gil thinks.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A new short story - part 5

It was the height that gave him the clue - Vantaris, son of Manousos. In London Gilbert had not considered himself to be tall but on moving here it soon became apparent that he was taller than most Greeks - even the men - sometimes by a head but Vantaris stands nearly 2 meters in his bare feet. Vantaris, barefoot, breaks into a trot and shouts and waves, "Gil, my friend, how are you? Do you have some rope?". He swoops down, lifts Gilbert bodily out of the trough and hugs him tight. Planting kisses on Gilbert's cheeks in turn he puts him down gently and asks again "Do you have rope my friend? In your fortigaki? I need some rope."  Gilbert grabbed Vantaris by the shoulder, "Wait, wait. How are your parents? You, I can see, are as hale as ever - you remember the word hale? And yes, I do have rope, in the back, behind the barrel". Vantaris hops up into the back of the little truck and Gilbert wonders again whether he wasn't part goat himself - surefooted, agile, and strong headed. Vantaris pulls the barrel that Gilbert uses as a tool box and roots around. "Where is it Gil? Yes, hale - it means I am in exceptional health and vigourous - from the Old English - aha -  eureka - I have found it." Gilbert  gives Vantaris an English lesson every week in a local cafe and Vantaris stubbornly tries to force Greek grammar into Gilbert's head. They drink frappe and they smoke and they laugh. "The family is well - you know we have a baptism soon? Little Manousos must have his name written in the book of life ..." his head thrown back he laughs ironically. He has a long length of rope wrapped around his hands and is testing its strength "Good rope Gil, you bought it here? Is there more? I need some more."

Gilbert has stepped back into the shade and eyes Vantaris through a pall of cigarette smoke, amazed at the energy of this young man and frankly envious of his rude fettle. "Plenty more - just look - what do you need it for?" Vantaris hops out of the truck and lands like a mature goat - rope in hand. "I have it Gil. Plenty of rope. Good rope too. Come on - you will help me." He drops down beside Gilbert and plunges his feet into the cold water in the trough oblivious of the wasps. "Come, I'll show you.Put your canisters in the truck. I'll help." Gilbert has accustomed himself over the years to this lack of please and thank you - the persistent and regular use of the imperative - but he still notices it. He grinds out the cigarette as Vantaris pulls on his dusty boots and soon they are climbing up the concrete incline to the churchyard, the canisters safely stowed. "Come Gil we have work to do. How is the lovely Becky? She is so beautiful. What she sees in an old man like you I can't imagine." He wraps his long arm around Gilbert's shoulder and seeps him along. A green Datsun truck sweeps past on the road below and a cloud of dust follows it. Standing in the back is a glossy black he-goat - Gilbert can see this much from where he stands.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A new short story - part 4

Gilbert puts the worn and dusty boots into a shady spot and goes back to the pick-up to get the canisters. The sun is high and he pushes the hat forward to cover his eyes. As he approaches the spring he notices that the outlet of the trough in front of the spring is blocked and the trough itself is overflowing. A cloud of wasps hovers above the surface and Gilbert's skin gooses. A cold shiver runs through him. Gilbert doesn't think that he is frightened of wasps but they do make him cringe. These wasps are his least favourite - the ones with the articulated bodies and the dangling legs (Note for those interested: Gilberts bete noir here is the European paper wasp ). It is the clean, running water that draws them to the spring and the hotter the day the more wasps gather and today is a very hot day - the 6th in a row. Gilbert fans the cloud of wasps away from the trough with his hat and notices that the sweat band is black with sweat. He bends, scoops up a hatful of the cold clear water and tips it over his head. He rubs his eyes clear, steps tentatively into the trough itself and starts filling the first of three canisters - an 8 liter red one. The cloud of wasps however has reformed and hovers but a foot away.

Gilbert stays perfectly still until the canister is full at which point he screws the top on and hastily lights a cigarette. The wasp cloud moves off left slightly and Gilbert sighs and begins to fill another canister. While he fills, he smokes. He is filling the last canister when a shadow falls into his peripheral vision. He looks around and sees a tall, bearded Sfakian coming toward him. He drops the cigarette in surprise and squints at the ambling figure approaching from the churchyard. He has been here long enough to know to treat all Sfakians with respect.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A new short story - part 3

Vantaris strides to the gate and peers up into the bright sun and toward the village. In his peripheral vision he glimpses one of the dark brown kids attempt an ambitious leap from one rock to another. Dark brown with a small white mark to the left of his tail. Vantaris notes it for future reference. The kid had landed badly and, in that seemingly insignifcant blunder. sealed its own fate. He shields his eyes and catches a flash of white as a small Fiat pickup negotiates one of the hairpin bends above. He takes a battered red box of Sante from his rolled up shirt sleeve and lights one. And he waits.

Gilbert drops the Fiat into third and sweeps into the bend with tyres howling - the sun has heated the road and softened the tyres. The empty water canisters slide across the truck bed behind him and he smiles, "I should have tied them down ... I always think of it ... and always it is too late ..."   Remembering his old Citroen DS he automatically reaches for the column change and has to correct himself. "She was a beauty, but a farmer needs a pick up not a limousine ... she ate these hairpins ... and at night ...  the headlights tracing out the bends before I got into them ... and the ride ... smoothing out the potholes ... she was a goddess indeed ... but we have to let go ... come on Pansy ... come on little pickup." And he uses the diesel's extra torque to make up for missing his gear change. As he rounds the last hairpin he sees the spring and coasts the last 50 meters.

Vantaris watches the little white Fiat come round the last bend and listens to the engine, "Bravo, - it is Gil, maybe he will have some rope. Of course he will have rope. Gil carries everything in that little fortigaki of his." The windows are wide open and Gil is wearing a huge straw hat tied on under the chin and smoking. "So Gil, he never uses the air-con" and he was back to his childhood when first he had met Gil.

He had been out with some friends and he had stayed long after them He had stayed too late -  watching the buzzards in the gorge way below his village. It was dark but it had been spring then, and so it was not properly night-time. Gil had swept past him in the magnificent Citroen, the feeble headlights picking him out against the hedge only at the last moment but Gil had braked and waited for him to catch up. They had driven to the village in silence, his english had been very scant back then and Gil's Greek almost non-existent. To this day he recalled the smooth black leather of the seats and the utter opulence of the alien car. Even the smell of it lived with him yet. He had had the windows open that day - all of them - and refused to put on the air-con but it had only been much later, when they were real friends and he had been to the frontisteria for a few years that he had dared to ask why. Gil had patiently explained about how running the air-con used more petrol and reduced the speed of the car.  Vantaris had not believed him and so Gil took him out onto the then new main coast road in in the Citroen to prove his point.  demonstrated. One hundred and eighty kilometers an hour through the twists and bends late at night - he had been so exhilarated. And still Gil does not use the air-con. And neither does Vantaris.

The Fiat pulls up beside the spring and Gil gets out of the passenger door pushing his hat to the back of his head. Dust tumbles out after him. "Mother of god. has he not fixed that door yet?"  Vantaris watches him take the water canisters from the back of the pickup and saunter over to the spring. "Will he see my boots?" he wonders. Gil does see the boots, and carefully moves them into a shadier spot before he reaches the spring itself. "Gil is good people" he says to himself " and the lovely Becky too. They are good people". He checks the goats, listening carefully to their bells and placing every single one of them on the rock faces before resuming his study of Gil.  

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A new short story - part 2

Tiny tremors run through the soles of Vantaris'  feet, his toes separate, and he arches. He is gradually waking himself and flexing his body. He rolls off his back and plants his bare feet on the red dirt that surrounds the bench, the same red dirt that the fields to the east expose to the beating sun. Dust rises just below the ridge that hides the lake. "Antonis is ploughing" he thinks "... watermelons again no doubt". He pulls his mobile from his shirt pocket and checks it. He looks to the sky to check the time. His shirt is black, the cuffs rolled back to his elbows. His trousers are black. Not solid black but a faded, weathered black. Not a north european black but a mediterranean black. Not the black that the tourists wear. Vantaris wears black because his family is from Sfakia but his father buys man made fabrics these days because the black does not fade. Vantaris respects the old ways and so has to buy a new shirt and new trousers for every family occasion - for weddings, for parties,  for baptism and yes, for funerals.  The very next day these clothes get circulated into his work clothes roster.

A stone falls behind him and he turns instantly, shouting. "Fige, fige!" he shoos the white goat away from the church grounds. The goat scrabbles back up the vertical face and looks back angrily. Vantaris waves his arm, "Fige ... ".

Satisfied that he has dealt with the white goat he fishes his iPod out of his back pocket and punches up some Pix Lax but no sooner has he put the earbuds in than he changes the song - Zavarakatranemia by Nikos Tsilouris - one of his all time favourites - Tsilouris,  now there was a real man! His bare foot taps, he turns to look out over the bay and wonders where he left his workboots.  The sky is almost white now - bleached out. "By the spring!". He had sat there and cooled his feet in the sweet  mountain water before he came up here, before the sun was properly risen. The track finished, he runs his thick fingers through his thick, close cut hair and searches in a tussock of coarse grasses from which he removes a bottle of spring water. Safe from the sun it has kept a refreshing morning chill. He gulps deeply and sighs. Psarantonis's lyra announces the next track, from the 1996 Από Καρδιάς (De Profundis) album, - "No mistaking that sound"  he says to nobody, to the goats maybe. But thinking of Psarantonis and Xylouris makes him think of his own brother - Andreas.

Andreas is a modern Cretan and Vantaris loves him and despises him all at the same time. Andreas runs the family hotels. He is a businessman. He drives a Porsche Cayenne and makes kamaki with the tourists. Named for his father's father, as eldest sons always are, Andreas is everything Vantaris hates about what is happening to his blessed island.  "The Cretan gaze ... where is the Cretan gaze? Kazantzakis would not recognise these Cretans ... and if he did he would hate them too". He shouts up at the white goat again, gets to his feet, and drinks deeply the sounds and scents that surround him. A diesel engine.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A new short story - part 1

Beyond the front apron of the little, immaculately white church that would look ramshackle had it not been lime washed last Clean Monday, perhaps 10 meters away, a stand of brutally pollarded mulberry trees has put on its summer leaf. Beneath the two parallel lines of 6 trees each side that are branch woven one into the other there are two rough hewn benches that are perfectly shaded now - only a scintilla of pure white early summer light minutely dapples the reclining body that lies there inert.
Behind the mulberry arbor another 10 meters the concrete ends with a broad painted kerb and beyond this the rock starts, and rises near vertically in protean lumps and crags. The cruel summer sun floods light onto the grey white rock faces and draws shadows as deep as a widows dress where here and there a glossy chestnut coloured goat can be discerned if one squints. A massive, slab sided, dirty white he-goat sporting an old testament length beard balances atop a massive crag seemingly looking down to where his goat herd rests. He is though, looking past the sleeping body and surveying instead the bright green foliage that leaks from the side window of the church.

The little church was built a long long time ago over the stump of a long dead tree. Nobody in the village can remember when the church was built or what sort of tree had once dominated this oasis beside the sweet water spring. Some old men sometimes spoke of their grandfather's grandfather's grandfathers having seen the tree in leaf but some old men will say anything with a few rakis taken. All that anybody had really ever known was that this place was blessed for centuries before the church was built there from stones hacked out of the rock face that today give it its backdrop. And then, last year, the tree came back to life.

The peripatetic priest had blessed it, claiming it for the Orthodox  Church - not enough people lived in the village any more to justify a priest of their own. The old people suddenly revered it, proclaiming it miraculous. There are no young people in the village, and there have not been for more than 10 years. Nowadays the only time that childish laughter can be heard ringing in the village is when baptisms and weddings are conducted at the little church - it looks so quaint in the photographs. The villagers go there only to bury their contemporaries and to pick spring flowers to weave into wreaths on the 1st of May.

The graveyard, nearly full now, nearly bursting truth be told. faces north and overlooks the wide caerulean blue bay beneath. Old Pavlo tou Georgis  had been buried on top of his wife rather than beside her this last winter and though the priest had been insistent that the gravedigger tell nobody the old folks had spent days checking paperwork, finding out how many bodies were already in the family tombs, discussing the problem in gruff whispers in the kafeneion. The photos and paintings on the massive marble tombstones have faded now and an air of unintentional neglect pervades the whole place. But on the south side fresh, fleshy, vital green leaves push out now through the crude stained glass. And the he-goat eyes it hungrily.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On acting and on reading

There was a strange discussion that developed on Facebook today. Serpent's Tail posted that Tilda Swinton's service had been secured for the film version of "We Need To Talk About Kevin" - WNTTAK hereon in. Strange, and strangely illuminating.

I was first in, with a response that I thought it an excellent choice - that she is a talented actress but soon there was a thread developing that decried the choice on the basis that TS always played cold characters (the naysayers had clearly never seen TS in Julia) . Soon people were suggesting other actresses and in most cases they were vastly inferior actresses but one who had already portrayed characters similar to the poster's reading of the character in WNTTAK.

What these discussions illuminated is interesting. interesting and strange. First up is the idea of what an actor is. We seemed to be operating two separate definitions. In what I shall call the American definition an actor/actress is a person who appears in films until he or she is cast in a role not very far removed from their own real personality and is thenceforward cast forever in not very nuanced versions of the same role - think Jack Nicholson, think De Niro, Pacino and Hoffmann. The British definition is significantly different. In the British definition an actor or actress is a professional who can convincingly portray on stage, or celluloid, or even digital video a wide, and in the case of great actors an almost unlimited variety of characters nothing like their own real life personalities. Tilda Swinton is a great actress within the British definition and thus the WNTTAK role is well within her scope. I suspect the director understands this. I'll work with the British definition thanks - Tilda is a great choice

The second point raised is possibly more interesting and it has to do with reading. It is my opinion that film and literature are separate artistic disciplines (it was, interestingly enough also Joyce's opinion and was largely responsible for the birth of modernist literature) and so the very idea of film adapting literature is abhorrent to me. We know from our French cousins that there is no such thing a s definitive texts and that each reader gets from a text a different experience (it's a lot like radio having better pictures than film). What was happening in this Facebook discussion was that the contributors were projecting their readings of the book's characters and selecting actors who they had seen in similar roles.  Of course this projecting of a reading is primarily a film director's job. He or she may or may not take any notice of the actor's reading even if the actor is of the kind to have a reading. 

My point, in all of this? That acting is misconstrued. That the ideas that the laity have about film casting are deluded. That film adapting literature is a bad idea - for literature at least. That we do not think enough.



The Smoking Gun!

I was lucky to have an English teacher who taught me how to read. Not how to read the individual signs and letter and words and sentences but how to read what a text was saying and how it was saying it. I use this skill assiduously and just in case you weren't so lucky here is an exercise.

Smoking costs the NHS five times as much as previously thought, researchers have calculated.

So begins a report on the BBC today. And we immediately know the tone to come.

Treating disease directly caused by smoking produces medical bills of more than £5bn a year in the UK.

It continues. Two sentences in and we have a concrete number. And, surprise, surprise, it's a shockingly big one!

In 2005, smoking accounted for almost one in five of all deaths and a significant amount of disability, the Oxford University team said.

Shocked by the big absolute number we can now have some percentages or in this case a ratio and an unquantified  "significant amount". Percentages are always good but sometimes if you want to slip a guess through you need to hedge it with another, more precise number and "almost one in five" sounds pretty precise doesn't it?.

The British Heart Foundation who funded the research said tighter regulations were needed on the sale of tobacco.

And there's the punch line - because of these numbers we need ... No surprises there then. So there you have the entire content of the report - smoking causes problems that cost the NHS a  lot of money so we need to do something legislative about it.

Not content with that the report decides to push it's point home but this is where it starts to unravel if we read the text closely. And the very next line begins the process.

The figure of £5bn in 2005-06 equates to 5.5% of the entire NHS budget.

OK, so smoking accounts for 20% of all deaths but costs the NHS only one twentieth of its budget. Did you see what I did there? I rounded their 5.5% down to a twentieth and re-expressed their almost one in five to 20%. And I added a carefully placed only. What's next?

Previous estimates have put the burden of smoking on the NHS at £1.4bn to £1.7bn, the researchers reported in Tobacco Control.

This sentence says, we used to think it was a big number but look, it's actually huge! Next up lets have an emotive inset quote from someone who sounds important.
This is money being drained out of the NHS as a direct result of something we have the power to prevent - Betty McBride, British Heart Foundation.

Yeah, that's a good one -  "drained out"  - like it isn't doing anything good or useful. Oh no, this is pure waste. Betty might be from the Heart Foundation but she seems not to have one - at least not for smokers. And that ending is good - a little ominous, but strong - we (without saying who this we is) can prevent all of this waste.

The next few paragraphs are key. Essentially they will now tell us that this is not new research. That these are not real numbers but "calculations" arrived at by extrapolating an old set of numbers using a set of other, unrelated, but newer figures from the WHO. Watch carefully how they do it and pass it off as genuine research.

But these were based on data from 1991 and because such studies are complicated to carry out, it has not been updated.

For the latest analysis researchers took into account data from the World Health Organization study of what proportion of a disease is caused by risk factors such as smoking, NHS costs and UK deaths from smoking-related diseases.

They calculated that in 2005, smoking was responsible for 27% of deaths among men and around one in 10 among women, a figure that has not changed much in the past decade.

When looking at the costs to the NHS, they calculated that treating cancer caused by smoking costs 0.6bn a year and cardiovascular diseases cost 2.5bn a year.

Long-term lung conditions cost £1.4bn.

Did you see that trick? All of the numbers in those paragraphs were qualified with "calculated"  - right up until the final, big money number £1.4bn. That is given as an absolute. Interesting number that - £1.4bn - where have I seen that before? Oh yeah back up there when it was a previous estimate. Convenient. And now they are going to tell us that that number is an underestimate. And they are going to slip in the fact that the data that the report is based on are out of date.


This annual cost is still likely to be an underestimate, they say, because it does not include indirect costs, such as lost productivity and informal care, the costs of treating disease caused by passive smoking, or the full range of conditions associated with smoking.

However, the study is based on data collected before the ban on smoking in public places came into force.

And now we get to hear from the study leader. And he's a doctor! Not a mathematician or a statistician. or even an economist, you'll note, but a doctor.

Study leader Dr Steven Allender, said the increased costs were largely due to increasing expense of treatment on the NHS with better treatment and technologies.

"The story is not so much the five-fold increase but that £5bn is an enormous number regardless.

OK, so maybe he isn't a statistician but he recognises a big number when he's just made one up. That's right Steve, a five fold increase isn't much of a story but a big number? That's something that'll get you in the media. And please note that this increase is not the fault of the smokers but of the drugs and medical companies and the NHS itself. Time for another emotive inset - not money this time but dead people.
England - 90,000
Wales - 6,000
Northern Ireland 2,500
Scotland - 11,000

Set beside this horrific set of numbers (Note: no source for these number is cited.) we get the estimable Steve's studied prognostications.

"There's two different ways of looking at this - one is if nobody smoked we would save £5bn but the alternative view is this is an enormous health problem and should be moved back up the policy agenda."

I have no problem with the second view. OK it's not what's being proposed but it sure is what needs doing. What is actually being proposed is, as we have already learned, another set of moral legislation that passes itself off as health legislation. But the first point? So what are we saying here Steve? That the people who currently smoke wouldn't, if they gave up, ever impose on NHS funds? No Steve, they'd have to die for that to be the case. Whatever they do die from might be less expensive. But it might be more expensive - like a lingering death from Allzheimer's? Oops. But let's not go there. Let's just get on with beating the reader with big numbers.

Drawing on their previous work on other lifestyle issues, he added that smoking cost five times more than lack of physical activity, twice the cost of obesity and about the same as an unhealthy diet.

A separate paper published by the team in the Journal of Public Health found that alcohol consumption costs the UK NHS £3bn.

Not all their numbers either! Alcohol is cheaper than cigarettes!! But what about those last 3 figures? The comparative ones. What are they for? Well, I suppose they are all lifestyle choices but I detect some kind of overlap. I feel a Venn diagram coming on. But no. Let's just say that unhealthy diet costs the NHS the same amount as smoking does. Is that, as Betty McBride told us about smoking , money just being drained out of the NHS a s a direct result of something we have the power to prevent? Well, surprise surprise, here comes Betty again and apart from re-iterating her point she goes on to proclaim her final solution.

Betty McBride, policy and communications director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This is money being drained out of the NHS as a direct result of something we have the power to prevent.

"Yet the true tragedy of this monstrous figure is the lives that are cut short or ruined as a result of smoking.

"This study shows exactly why we need the strongest possible measures to control the sale of tobacco."

And here comes the DoH to back her up.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The government has made great progress in cutting the number of people smoking by nearly 2.5 million over the last ten years but with 21% of adults still smoking in England, there is much work left to do.

"We will be publishing a new tobacco control strategy this year to ensure England can look forward to a tobacco-free future."

Some people might be looking forward to a tobacco-fre future but not me. And not a whole lot of other people either. Do we get a say in this? I think not!  Betty, Steve, and the spokesman from the DoH have settled all this with a few big, made up numbers. And now here comes the BBC house policy - right at the end they have to get a quote from a dissenting voice. Not a reputable doctor, or economist, or statistician but a spokesman for the smoker's lobby group (the implication is that he is not credible).

However, Simon Clark, from the smoker's lobby group Forest, said the figure in the report was a guesstimate, and should be treated with contempt.

Mr Clark said it was preposterous to suggest that the cost of smoking to the NHS had risen dramatically, as smoking rates had been falling for 50 years.

He said: "Even if it was true, smokers still contribute twice that amount to the Treasury in tobacco taxation and VAT.

"Far from being a burden on society, smokers make an enormous financial contribution."

And strangely enough he actually makes 3 sound points. Too bad that he has already been discredited as a crank.

Read the whole article as presented on the web here

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Book Review - Chapel Road by Louis Paul Boon

Louis Paul Boon is not much translated into English - 3 books out of at least 11 major works at the last count. The Wikipedia page on Belgian writers does not list him as such despite the fact that he was born in Belgium. The Dalkey Archive, who publish Chapel Road, have him in their Netherlandic Literature series.

Rumoured to have been considered for the Nobel prize for literature in the late 1970s Boon is largely either overlooked or ignored in English speaking countries and the only reason that I can imagine for this lacuna is that he was a committed socialist.

Boon, on the limited evidence of this work, was a hugely talented and inventive writer who in some ways prefigures such current greats as B S Johnson and James Kelman. Boon abandoned the Dutch language for the lower status Flemish for his major works and this adoption of a regional dialect actually figures as a social marker in Chapel Road.

Chapel Road is a great book - flawed but great. Boon winds 3 apparently separate and yet connected threads together into a rope of narrative and commentary that beguiles, amuses, and amazes by every chapter and page. The writer Boon and his friends comment on the ongoing composition of the tale of Ondine - a girl from an earlier age and her social aspirations and bizarre family in an industrial town while Boon's friend, the journalist Johan Janssens retells the fable of Reynard and Isigrenus to echo both of the other threads.

Boon wanted the book to be published using an array of different fonts and colors, and intended initially to include actual photographic reproductions of the clippings and documents he wanted to quote—thus anticipating W. G. Sebald, However, publishing companies of the day couldn’t—or wouldn’t—cope with Boon’s demands and it seems that his wishes cannot, worse luck, be honoured.

Boon eventually stopped writing in 1969 and took to painting instead. Perhaps he had nothing more to say. Chapel Road is a landmark novel and worthy of elevation to the pantheon and the canon. It is hugely entertaining and beautifully innovative. It is funny and tragic. It is cleverly crafted and intense.

The flaw? It is only my opinion but I find it a tiny bit too openly polemical but that could so easily be my problem and not his.

Read this book!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

3 New Lights

When Gill came back the other night from taking the dogs to their run she remarked on a couple (it turned out to be three) new lights on the opposite ridge of the valley. At first we thought it might be a late night silaging session but the following night they appeared again - and they stayed.

A little thinking and a little investigation revealed that the council have installed road lighting on the Kastellos to Dramia road that runs on the other side of the ridge and in one place the ridge dips sufficiently to reveal 3 of these lights to our gaze.

Light pollution! When we first moved into this house there were no lights visible from our balconies save one or two in Kastellos village which is a good 5 kilometers to the south. In fact the first time we switched on a light here we attracted every moth and light loving insect for a 20 kilometer radius. The balcony soon disappeared beneath a blanket of insect life. We had to extinguish the light and go out to a taverna until they left.

A year or three later the roads authority erected massive sodium lamps on the main highway a kilometer or so to the north. This was the beginning of the end of our isolation although it took them a good year to get them working reliably at night rather than during the day.

And this winter the local council put road lights on our track - just 3 of them but ...

OK, we can still see more of the milky way than we had ever seen before moving here. Yes, we do have hundreds of thousands of stars visible on a clear night. Yes, we can navigate our garden by moonlight at full moon and check out the roof fittings in its shadow.

And as I write this it occurs to me - who else would notice 3 new street lights more than a kilometer away? We are lucky.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

One more summer?

No more false hopes.
No more unreal expectations.
No more miracle cures on distant horizons.
This, my love is it.
This, my darling, is the start of our goodbye.

But how do we arrange this parting?
When both of us were younger we
parted from other lovers
but now?
Parting is for youngsters
Departing is for old timers
For us.

In all these years together
I have loved you

No less over time
More if anything

And if the years have raddled us
still our tatterdemaillion suits us well
and can take nothing from this love

I cry bitter tears
my mouth is full of ashes
but this has to be

One more summer my love?
and then goodbye.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Torrents, Pirates, Demons and assorted others

Given the frankly bizarre judgment handed down against the guys who run The Pirate Bay can we now expect the parasitic, bloodsucking, moneygrubbing dickwads who run the film and music "industries" to go after Google. Yahoo and their ilk? Given that not one of those guys actually hosts any copyright protected material on their own machines then as far as I can see they all do pretty much the same thing. 

Type "there will be blood" torrent into google or any reputable search engine and you will be able to download a copy of the film ideirectly from links they provide ( google wil give you 429,000 results). 

So come on guys (RIAA etc) take on these giants in court and lets see how you do.

Western Justice

So let's get this straight:
you host links to files that other people want to share and you go to prison for a year and cop a £3m fine
you torture innocent civilians in order to prove that they are neither innocent nor civilians and you walk away
you leak state secrets and you walk away
you beat peaceful protesters or innocent bystanders on the streets of London and you get suspended from work on full pay
anything else or will that do for now?

Hold on thought there are couple of others:
you host and train Al Qaeda and Taleban forces, you oppress the women in your state, you take the piss out of any idea of proper western democracy and you get given $5 bn dollars to stop it - well, to stop the terrorist training thing anyway
you invade all of your neighbouring states, seize their lands, drop white phosphorous on innocent civilians and refuse to allow them free movement, and you ignore all UN sanctions against you and you get, every year, in perpetuity the largest slice of US foreign aid

That's justice!

Eye don't believe it!

So we went to the oculist on Wednesday - no appointment just sit and wait - we waited maybe 40 minutes and both went in for our full eye tests - the works - field of vision the lot - twenty five minutes later we have 2 new prescriptions for the reading glasses and a bill for 50 euros which is 10 less than what it cost us 2 years back.

Take the scrips to the optician we used 2 years ago and he takes a note of the necessary - the lenses will be here tomorrow at 11 - bring your frames in and it'll take 35 minutes - whenever suits you - top notch lenses - 130 euros for the lot - yes we're open on Good Friday - and off we go.

Went back this morning at about 11:20 with our frames - oh I'm so sorry the technician doesn't come in until 12:00 - come back at one and they'll be ready - we go and do our things - have a coffee and wander back at around one - the shop is heaving - every Greek and her husband is trying on new season's sunglasses and Mr Optician is under great pressure - he leaves his customer and comes over to apologise - sorry they aren't done yet - we've been so busy - come back in 15 minutes - I promise! We fight our way out past bespectacled bubble cuts and drift off to the mosque - which is shut this being Good Friday and all. 20 minutes later we fight our way through an ever growing crowd of potential sunglass purchasers and still they aren't ready - Mr Optician is profuse in his apologies and rushes to the back of the shop where we assume the technician is working - we wait - Mr O apologises several times - each time more desperate than the time before - and so it goes on we wait - he checks back and apologises - until ... finally he brings the newly minted specs over with an eye chart at about 2 o'clock. Perfect vision. He apologises or rather doesn't - I cannot apologise, there are not the words! We get ready to pay and he waves our money away - no, no, not after all that waiting - I couldn't take your money! We try but he is adamant.

We have our new specs for free! Where else in the world?

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Gilbert Sorrentino has long been on my list of great American writers. He's been at the top of that list for quite a while now and so when a great friend of mine sent me a copy of Red The Fiend I was keen to read this later work (1995). This is the latest of his works that I have read and yet he produced 5 more books before he died in 2006 so I still have 5 treats in store.

Since Steinbeck effectively laid down his pen in 1962 few American novellists have addressed themselves to the issues of the American working classes even though it is arguable that the working class plight now is worse even that it was in Steinbeck's time.  Bellow, Roth and Updike all produced middle class novels for the American middle classes. Sorrentino and his great friend Hubert Selby wrote of the working classes though I doubt that the working classes read their work. Red The Fiend is a novel about a small, tight, american working class family.

Red The Fiend is a brilliant novel that examines, dissects, documents and observes the creation of a monster or fiend. In his trademark elegant sentences, with his unfailing ear for dialogue, and with the inventiveness that marks him as a genius Sorrentino invites us to watch, and smile, as a young boy is turned into Red The Fiend. Only Pynchon can handle the grotesque with humour anywhere near as well as Sorrentino. At times I felt as though I was watching a train crash happen as I read this book and felt almost ashamed that I was laughing openly.

Red's grandmother may well be the most unpleasant character in all of literature but despite this she is frighteningly convincing - no caricature this - this is the real thing and all the more terrifying for that realism. Red The Fiend is in fact peopled by a fair few very nasty pieces of work.  I cannot imagine that anybody who has read this book will ever forget it.

Despite the genius of the narration, the polished brilliance of the language, the darkness of the subject matter, and the unforgettable nature of the things that happen in this book the truly stunning thing about this novel is the fact that it is so easy for the reader to fail to notice just how exceptional it is as a novel. Sorrentino wrote some of the greatest 20th century novels but in Red The Fiend he wrote a genuine 21st century novel and yet you could be forgiven for not noticing - he does it so well.

Red The Fiend runs to only 213 pages but contains 49 chapters. 49 chapters that could probably be read in almost any order. It is direct. It is unforgettable. It engages immediately and lastingly. It achieves what B S Johnson once described as the only point of the novel - telling the truth by telling stories. And it does so in an almost entirely new way. Red The Fiend points the way ahead for the novel.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Book Review - The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman

James Kelman is the only Brit shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2009. His novel A Disaffection which I reviewed here previously was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1989. His novel How late it was, how late won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1994. With the possible exception of J G Ballard he is probably the finest Brit writer of English active today.

There are no heroes in Kelman. There are no massive plot arcs, no tricksy twists, no gratuitous redemptions. Kelman specialises in real life - and brilliant clear prose. His ear is acute for ordinary Scottish Glasgow dialect and he records it in such a way that it rings from the page. His eye for the telling trivial vignette is piercing and he puts these snatches of dialogue and fragments of life together in such a skilled way that you slow down your reading pace to savour them. I am always sad to finish a Kelman work be it a short story or a a novel - The Bus Conductor Hines is no exception.

Rab Hines is a bus conductor. He is not a great bus conductor - his record is poor. He hates the job.Rab Hines is a husband and father. He is neither a great husband nor a wonderful father. Rab is just like you and me - pretty ordinary. Rab gets by. He does his best. He makes the most of what he has - even the no-bedroomed tenement flat under threat of imminent demolition that he and his family inhabit uncomfortably.

Quite simply put James Kelman does what few novelists these days can do - he describes the ordinary and makes it true. He chooses and uses his language to convince you of the humanity in all of us. Long may he continue so to do.

The zen of olive pruning

How does one prune olives? Do you prune your own? Would you prune mine for me - I'll pay you? In that case, would you show me how to prune mine? So ... clean the middles so the sun can get in, and remove and crossing branches, and cut out anything growing straight up. That's it? OK ... and bring the canopy down if we want to pick by hand? How far down? I need to take about 2 metres off? Are you sure? And take off any suckers. Like an umbrella? OK.

The only thing certain about olive tree pruning here in Crete is that there are as many opinions about it as there olive farmers or maybe as many as there are trees. I spent 3 years asking people about how to do it. I spent 5 years asking "experts" to do it for me. In the end I bit the bullet and decided to do my own. It could not be put off any longer - our ladders no longer reached the upper olives. I began with the oil trees - we have 12 eating olive trees and 80 oil trees.

I started with all of the wisdom incorporated in paragraph 1 above and a simple summary sentence from a Californian web site dealing with the knotty subject of olive tree pruning - "a badly pruned olive tree is better than an unpruned olive tree". I wish I could attribute that pearl but I've lost the link. I decided to eschew the use of a chain saw - too traumatic for the trees I felt: and I hoped that standing before a majestic and ancient tree with just a handsaw would make me think carefully before making that first fateful stroke.

My first tree truly daunted me as I stood before it for perhaps 40 minutes. I must have looked almost paralysed - maybe dumbstruck. I could not help thinking of those stories about painters, frightened and awed by a blank canvas, tentative, and considering all of the possible first brushstrokes knowing that there is only one correct first move. That everything flows from there.

In time I overcame the fear and inertia and entered the tree - literally stood in the middle of the tree feeling the rough bark of that timeless life force against my back and gazing skyward - and so I set to. Every tree was different - unique. Every tree was a new problem to be solved and with every tree I became more confident: I cut more boldly. When the last tree was done I went back to the beginning and redid the first half dozen with my new confidence.

And I was pleased with what I had wrought. But what did I know? Five weeks later a local olive farmer came to visit and remarked on how good the trees looked - " ... who pruned them? ... and would he perhaps do mine?" When I explained that I had in fact done them myself there was a palpable wave of admiration, a hearty slap on the back and a loud "Bravo". We drank some rakis on the strength of it.

In the following year this scene replayed itself time and again - locals loved my pruning and admired my "brutality". Men I admired heaped praise on my efforts and slapped my back. And then came the harvest. Despite my ministrations we had a decent crop and they were so easy to pick - everything within easy reach - no ladders required. But the cherry on top of the cake was when the organic certification people came for our first farm inspection and congratulated me on the trim of the trees - "... the best in the valley".

There is now something strangely satisfying, something oddly creative, almost spiritual for me about pruning olive trees. This year it has been the turn of the eating olives and they, I think, have been neglected for longer than had the oil trees. They are bigger and have a different configuration and even a different habit - they have posed a new challenge.

For the past two weeks I have been studying each tree as I have passed it. Cutting bamboo for the last week has allowed me to study every one in some detail. By the time I am ready I have a sketch of an approach in my head. I walk around the tree several times eyeing it from all angles. I check my mental sketch and adjust my start point if necessary. I absorb the treeness of this particular tree and take it on board. When I am at one with the tree I step inside it and clear any obstacles to my view and freedom of movement. From there on in it is a simple, matter of taking away all those parts that are not of the essence of the tree that I know is in there. I once heard a wood carver being interviewed on radio and the interviewer asked him about how he began carving for example an elephant from a hunk of tree. His reply stuck with me and I understood it artistically without taking it properly on board - "... the elephant," he explained, as if to a child, "is inside the wood. All I have to do is to take away the parts that are not elephant". Now I know exactly what he meant.

Monday, March 02, 2009

What is it you don't understand Ed?

"Schools Secretary Ed Balls has asked the chief schools adjudicator to look at how widely random selection is used and whether it is fair to children."

This one had me shouting at the radio "What is it you don't understand Ed? Random selection is, by definition fair - any other system just isn't". The different guises that selection for secondary education establishments has taken on since UK governments started talking up the idea of parental choice - including "faith", economic ability, locations and any other nonsense that they can come up with have been blithely accepted but when schools decide to make at least some of their selection truly fair the ubergruppenfuhrer f schools goes ape. It has to be stopped! So, deciding on a child's educational options based on which nutty religion his parents follow or profess to follow is OK - deciding the same thing on how close his or her parents can afford to move to the required school - that's fair but making a random selection isn't? Did this Balls guy not have an education?  

Maybe, just maybe, his objection to this incredibly fair system is that his middle class pals cannot rig this system to suit their spoiled little bratty kids. You think?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

BookReview - The Lavender Way

Somebody over at LibraryThing (a guy called Larry Riley) reviewed The Lavender Way this week and I'm reet made up about it. Read it now - and then order yourself a copy of this amazing book from the LuLu link on this page:

LibraryThing review by Larry Riley (US)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

GAG reflux - competition done

One of the reasons that it's been quiet here (maybe not the chief reason but one of them) is because I have been taking part in an online novel competition over at the Telegraph. Well it's done now. I posted the last episodes today and while I'm not over the moon about the result, it was worth doing. I stayed within all of my self set constraints and, of course, meets all of the competition requirements. It comes out at about 20,000 words and I have already started thinking about how to make it available as an e-book using Sophie. I'll let you all know when it's ready in that format but for now I'm posting a list of relevant links in the order in which episodes were posted. Be aware that there are hyperlinks out from some of these episodes - follow whichever ones take your fancy (or none at all - or all of them - it's up to you). Enjoy

Opening Gambit

Next Moves

Third Part



Balcony Xania Harbour

The Makeshift Morgue

Good and Gone

Unravelling and Ravelling



Happy Like Killers

Blood Insect

Found and Lost


Ceramic Beheading

Job Jobbed

Monday, January 26, 2009

Book Review: Moon Palace by Paul Auster

Moon Palace is novel of searching. When we discover that our hero's name is Marco Stanley Fogg the signpost is well and truly planted. Marco Polo, Henry Morton Stanley and Phileas Fogg could hardly be associated with much else. When we then discover that he refers to himself as MS we get the secondary reference: man as an unfinished book - writing himself as he goes. Now, given that M S Fogg is an orphan it is quite clear that we shall be having a story of a man seeking his father and his identity that will feature book quite heavily - Auster likes his heres literary where possible. And so it goes. Auster's twist here is that he finds not only his father but his father's lost father too. Auster is in love with the list of three and the trilogy as an idea so the fact that we end up with the father, the son, and the grandfather is no surprise. Auster takes us and his hero through adventures with books, adventures in the wild west, and adventures with his father to arrive at M S Fogg finding himself having lost his antecedents.

Paul Auster is a very good writer. I was going to refer in this review to two previous reviews that I have written of his works: New York Trilogy and Oracle Nights but it transpires that while I wrote the reviews (in my head - which is where my composition actually happens) I have never written them down or should that be written them out, or published them. Which is a shame but not a disaster. To summarise I loved New York Trilogy which is a trio of novellas and I felt that Oracle Nights while good would have been better as a set of novellas. The same criticism, if it is a criticism applies to Moon Palace. It is essentially three novellas telling what is essentially the same story. After 90 pages or so I felt that the point was made and the text complete. I could see the joins where Auster has glued the three stories "together" into a "novel" and I resented it as a a writer. I suspect that Auster's publishers encourage him to write novel length fiction when his real strength is the novella. Alternatively he has not come to terms with his own metier. By all means tell me the same tale 3 ways - I'm happy with that but don't gussy it up and tell me it's a traditional novel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oh ... Bah ... Humbug

The inauguration today of yet another american president is not an historic moment. The world has not changed. And nor will it - in any significant way.

We are told that he is to be the first black president of the US. He is not really black. He is of mixed race and as far as I can make out had he been born in his father's country and not his mother's (and Hawaii has only been in the US for two years when he was born) he could not have even run for president let alone been elected.

We are told that he is an inclusive politician but then that's what we were told about his predecessor the idiot George W Bush.

We are told that he is a new broom in the middle east despite his pledge to back Israel all the way during his campaign. He may be but do not kid yourself that he will change anything very significantly. He is just another politician made in the mould of all politicians and as such is simply the most recent mouthpiece of the forces that actually run the systems that punish us all daily.

So go on Obama prove me wrong - change the world significantly for the better. You have 4 years. If you get 8 years it means you will have failed - nobody gets a second term unless they have proven that they aren't going to do anything to damage the systems.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review - The Bloomsday Dead by Adrian McKinty.

Adrian McKinty is great addition to the noir genre. This is apparently his fourth novel featuring Michael Forsythe a particularly unlikable fellow originally from Ireland but whom we find managing an hotel in Peru under the witness protection program. McKinty swiftly transport him, and us the readers, to a post-ceasefire Ireland on Bloomsday 2004 to find and recover the kidnapped daughter of an Irish American lady gang boss. So there you have the opening - fast and mobile - a great start to any book and especially a thriller.

Besides leaking more and more plot and background to us as we go along McKinty also tests our knowledge of modern Irish literature with his references to Flann O'Brien and reminds us on every page, with a subtle typographic device, of James Joyce. McKinty is knowing and knowledgeable, as is his anti-hero Forsythe, and one gets the impression that he is smiling to himself as he writes. I found myself smiling along with him.

Apart from a dreadfully contrived opening line that had me reaching for the sick bag I have only one quibble with McKinty and that has to do with the length of this novel - 50 or 60 pages shorter would have made it a much better book. He needs, in my opinion, to edit himself more harshly to get up there with the top flight.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Book Review: Nightmare in the Street by Derek Raymond


Derek Raymond was a great writer. Together with Colin Wilson, Derek Raymond invented British noir.  HIs books are beyond hardboiled. He takes the reader into deep and dark territory. The Factory Series that he wrote between 1984 and 1990 will enter the worldwide canon of noir novels and I Was Dora Suarez may go down as the acme of noir.

That said, Nightmare in The Street is awful. It is not just bad - it is terrible. But ... that is not Derek Raymond's fault, the typescript for this travesty was discovered after his death and in my humble opinion it should have been immediately destroyed. It is so clearly not a finished work - probably a first draft in fact - that it cannot be counted in his ouevre. The publishers do not even appear to have employed an editor familiar with his style. This text is so rough, so unpolished, so unpared that it is an insult to his memory and talent and a cynical moneymaking con on his readers. 

Read any other Derek Raymond novel but do not read this.