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, 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!