Wednesday, 31 December 2014

My Foreskin Has Gone for a Burton

‘There doesn’t exist a profession that isn’t in here!’ said a clerk as he flourished an elegantly blue-cloth bound book. I was in the Oxford office of the Department of Employment, where I’d gone to report that I had just become unemployed. I proved him wrong: he couldn’t find the job I had just left, so insisted, against my protests, on putting me down as a ‘Microphone Boom Operator’, because that was something that was in his book and sounded to him a bit like what I’d been doing.

His little book would doubtless also have had trouble with some of the positions held by Richard Burton: not the actor, not the seventeenth century author of ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’, but the nineteenth century explorer, adventurer, translator of the ‘Kama Sutra’ and the ‘Thousand Nights and a Night’, etc. etc. At one time he worked for the British Government as an undercover (perhaps literally) investigator into conditions in the brothels frequented by members of the Indian Colonial Service. One of his reports explains that, at the time, the usual price for a pre-pubertal boy was, if I remember rightly, five and a half rupees. Provided he were uncircumcised of course: a circumcised boy cost a mere four rupees.

There must I think be some flaw in the reasoning that tends to the obvious conclusion that the going rate for a foreskin was one-and-a-half rupees. I suppose foreskins, unlike boys, are not fungible.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Unusual Uses for Vegetables

A few years ago the British minister of something-or-other, announcing some new law or other, explained that it would not be imposed authoritatively from above, but more by persuasion at a ‘Grass-roots’ level. (All flesh is grass of course, but politicians are especially fond of treating the electorate as something to walk on.) ‘It will be less top-down stick,’ he explained, ‘And more bottom-up carrot’.

The idiotic things politicians say are an endless source of delight, but my favourite dates from the ’thirties; the following Comintern Directive to the British Communist Party, quoted by Claud Cockburn in his book ‘Crossing the Line’:

‘The lower organs of the party in Britain must make still greater efforts to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat.’

Monday, 29 December 2014

Sorry Seems the Hardest Thing to Say

Especially if you’re a commercial organization.

Consider three quite distinct uses — and therefore three quite distinct meanings — of ‘Sorry’.

One is exemplified by ‘The dog was a sorry sight when she got home after an unsuccessful afternoon’s rabbit-hunting in the rain.’ Here, ‘sorry’ is an adjective, characterizing the dog’s appearance: bedraggled, abject, disappointed, soggy.

Sense two is the common one: ‘I’m sorry I trod on your laptop/cat/baby.’ ‘Sorry’ is here something like what linguistic philosophers have called a ‘Performative Utterance’; to say ‘sorry’ in this sense is to be sorry. One remembers from childhood being told ‘Say “Sorry”!’ and how one felt about it. It is admitting blame and declaring remorse.

Then there is sense three: ‘Sometimes I almost felt sorry for that prat Dennis: imagine being married to Maggie.’ To feel sorry for someone is to feel pity or sympathy.

Now consider the following only lightly fictionalized openings to letters from companies:

‘We are sorry that you are not pleased with your Russell-Hobbs Espresso Machine…’ (This flimsy piece of plastic has less pressure than a nun’s fart and consequently makes acridly undrinkable coffee; it’s incapable of frothing any kind of milk, and it falls over as soon as one touches any of its controls.)

‘We are sorry you disliked the typography of our edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems…’ (It looked as if the printer had used blotting paper and a leaky ink-jet cartridge).

Many people getting either of those two letters would think ‘Well, at least they said ‘Sorry’. But read more carefully: of course they hope you will take these ‘Sorry’s in sense two, but in fact they’re using sense three, though minus the sympathy and plus some contempt. Just try getting them to admit liability and offer redress and you will see what I mean. It’s become a common trick, and they get away with it because they know most people won’t or can’t analyse what has been said, and anyway think ‘correct usage’ is an outmoded concept; that linguistic precision doesn’t really matter.
But it bloody well does.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Literary Fame

How to achieve it? Writing something really good, something of undeniable (among those who have critical faculties) literary merit is recommended only for those with a long-term, indeed post mortem, view. If you don’t much mind if few people read your stuff now, so long as some people are still reading it in a hundred or five hundred years, then that’s the way to go.

But most people would like to be rich and famous sort of now-ish, and then there are two routes: the older and more difficult one is to get your book banned, or anathematised, or otherwise strongly disapproved, by some, usually nominally religious, organization or other. The Roman Catholic Church used to be a good bet: write something that would get your book on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or at least the Index Librorum Expurgatorum. This would ensure huge sales at least in the world’s very large Roman Catholic population. In Greece, you could annoy the Orthodox Church; with any luck they would not only try to ban your book, they might anathematise or excommunicate you yourself. Nikos Kazantzakis had great success like this, and so did the lesser-known Kephallonian writer Andreas Laskaratos. A more recent and more dangerous route is to annoy certain powerful people who claim to be Muslims. Salman Rushdie went this way and very nearly got killed, but it ensured very high sales for what is by no means his best book.

An easier method is to use money, and it is by far the most common way now, being done routinely every day: You, or rather your publishers, pay a bribe, often quite large, to Waterstone’s and, entirely regardless of your book’s literary merit, they put it in the window and on the table just inside the entrance. (No doubt Amazon has a similar bribe-taking system.) People with no taste or discrimination, i.e. most of the people who go into Waterstone’s in the first place, will eagerly buy it because it is a ‘Best Seller’. (It is a ‘Best Seller’ because it's on the front table and people with no… yes you’ve got the idea.)

As I say, that is the easier way, especially if you have lots of money. No doubt something similar operates for films, so it’s a touch surprising that Sony, or is it Disney, have opted for the old ‘disapproval’ route to get huge numbers of viewers and potential viewers of their dire piece of idiocy about an American plot to kill the pompous, paranoid, and murderous buffoon who runs North Korea.

Friday, 26 December 2014

P. D. James

I had somehow missed the fact that PD James has died. Fair enough, she was old — really very old, but even so it is a great loss. We need all the good people we can get, and I fear we can no longer rely on the old Jewish belief that there are always seven — is it seven? — just men (that of course includes women) in the world; that when we lose one another will be coming to maturity; waiting in the wings as it were.

Here is what the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society had to say about her:

Crime writer PD James dies aged 94


PD James, one of the doyennes of detective fiction, has died aged 94.

Baroness James of Holland Park, who wrote over 20 bestselling novels, selling millions worldwide, was the author of such novels as The Children of Men, The Murder Room and Death Comes to Pemberley.

The literary world paid tribute both in print and across social media, with fellow crime writers Ian Rankin and Val McDermid expressing their mutual admiration.

Ian Rankin tweeted: "So sad about PD James. Every event I did with her was a joy. Sharp intellect, ready wit. She will be missed"

Val McDermid also paid her respects via Twitter: "I salute the great PD James for so many reasons. Today, I've lost a friend as well as a teacher. There was nothing cosy about Phyllis"

PD James' publishers, Faber & Faber released the following statement:

"It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing PD James, one of the world's great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962.

"She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books. Working with her was always the best of times, full of joy. We will miss her hugely."



To call her a ‘Crime Writer’ is like saying that Herman Melville wrote a book about fishing. She was one of those writers — Raymond Chandler was another — who used the detective story framework to write fine literary novels. ‘Doyenne’ is a silly word and I doubt the writer knows what it means. ‘The Children of Men’ and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ are atypical and not the best of her works. And the fact that she was until recently President of the Society of Authors is not even mentioned.

‘The Times’ is said to have its obituaries ready years before the event and needing only slight bringing up-to-date. ALCS must have known PD James’s death could not be far off; as a writers’ organization they should have done better. Oh, and the photograph accompanying their obituary is dreadful. It doesn’t matter of course what she looked like, but here anyway is a better picture:

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Die Winterreise

This morning dawned unseasonably bright, warm and sunny, as have several days here recently. After breakfast I lay in bed reading the ‘Literary Review’. There is a new book, by the singer Ian Bostridge, called ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’. ‘Oh, good,’ I thought; ‘a book about that beautiful and, in the proper sense of the word, tragic work ‘Die Winterreise’. I shall almost certainly get it, but let’s just see what the reviewer (Rupert Christiansen) has to say.’

My Christmas smile started to drop as I read ‘This is emphatically not a narrow musicological monograph’…’engage the non-specialist reader’ …’nicely unbuttoned, unhectoring style that won’t deter the uninitiated’… and more of the same pap.

It is painfully clear that the reviewer, and presumably the author, regard all these as virtues, and think we should too. What is the point of all these ‘accessible’ books that make no intellectual, literary, or indeed musical demands of the reader? Why don’t Messrs Christiansen and Bostridge just say ‘Hi guys and gals! Forget boring, difficult old Schubert! Check out the ‘Easy Listening’ section and get your self some nice, soothing Mantovani!’

In case anyone’s interested, here anyway (not very well reproduced I fear) is the first page of ‘Die Winterreise’:
The Philistines are upon us, but Happy Christmas anyway.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Playground Squabble

I’ve said before that listening to the ‘Major Statesmen’ of the world trying to settle their differences is like watching three-year-olds squabbling round the toy-box. The latest squabble is about a comedy film, made under the auspices of the Sony Corporation, about an American plot to kill the dictator of North Korea, who has declared himself less than amused. A little later there was a ‘Cyber Attack’ on Sony which made public all sorts of things (most of them of no interest to anyone with a couple of brain cells) they had wanted to keep secret. Powerful infants in America decided it must have been the naughty North Koreans who arranged this attack, and lo and behold, yesterday the internet went down in North Korea. I wonder who did that.

But what about the film? Well, it seems that — no doubt in the interests of ‘Homeland Security’ — we are not to be allowed to see it, but yesterday I heard an American film critic who has somehow managed to see it give his opinion: apparently it is even more dire and infantile than most American comedy films.

So why am I bothering to write on this blog, this well-known bastion of seriousness and intellectual integrity, about such nonsense? Because both North Korea and America have in their toy-boxes devices that could kill every living thing on the planet. As W.H. Auden said,

One should not give a poisoner medicine,
A conjurer fine apparatus, nor
A rifle to a melancholic bore.

Monday, 22 December 2014


The word makes me think of a bad joke about someone from Japan changing his Yen into Pounds, but the fluctuations I refer to are in readership (or at least of clicking-on-er-ship) of this blog. The other day 65 people (or perhaps one person 65 times, or … well you get the idea) looked at it, then the next day only 8. Sometimes when I put a limerick in the readership goes up again. Our last one (not counting the scurrilous one about Jesus) was the Puma, so now we want one beginning with Q:

The Quail has good reason to quail;
on the ‘Glorious twelfth’ without fail
come the dumb upper classes
with guns and field-glasses —
really, they’re beyond the pale.

By the way, ‘The Pale’ in that phrase derives from a fence (‘Pale’ can mean fence) which the Brits put round Dublin a long time ago, so that the colonialists could live comfortably in the city without having to see any nasty Irish, who all lived ‘Beyond the Pale’. The ‘Glorious twelfth’ is the 12th of September, which is the date on which the law says one can start shooting the things. (Birds, not Irish people; you used to allowed to shoot them whenever you felt like it.)

Here (below) is a quail. They’re quite small; nevertheless people shoot them and eat them. In Britain they are popular among the rich, probably because they’re expensive so they eat them to show off. Here in Greece frozen ones, at least, are quite cheap, but one needs half-a-dozen or so to make a meal for one. I’ve eaten them myself, but felt ashamed: they looked so obviously like little birds. (Yes I know, but humans aren’t very logical.)

Friday, 19 December 2014

Christmas Quiz

Here (from memory, so they may not be quite accurate) are some quotations and their attributions, which are all wrong. (Well, one or two may be right.) See if you can find the correct matches. I won’t give the solutions later, as those who get it right will know they have done so, and win (if they are not already in it) membership of the Association of Smart-Arses and Know-Alls, of which I am the founder.

Madam, you’re ugly: I shall be sober in the morning.
King James.
Every Prime Minister needs a willy.
Tony Blair.
It is more than a duty to speak one’s mind: it is a pleasure.
Winston Churchill.
If I’d known, I’d have been a locksmith.
Margaret Thatcher.
When I hear the word ‘Culture’, I reach for my Browning.
Oscar Wilde.
Brahms is the Wagner of Music.
Samuel Goldwyn.
A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Neville Cardus.
No pudding, and no fun.
Hermann Göring.
John Donne’s poetry is like the Peace of God: it passeth all understanding.
Queen Victoria.
I did not have sex with that woman.
Albert Einstein.
If you don’t play good football, you won’t win.
Bill Clinton.


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Reasons to be Cheerful, part one.

Today, for the first time in a week, the sun appeared. Just after 7.30 local time I was able, while waiting for the toast to pop up, to stick my head out of the skylight and watch the sun rise. At this time of year — it’s almost the winter solstice — it pops up out of the Aegean from just behind the edge of Skyros, at about the place — I think it’s called Treis Boukes — where Rupert Brooke is buried. Well actually I think they found the ground too hard to dig a proper grave, so they just piled a lot of rocks onto his body. Brooke and some fellow officers had visited the spot from their British naval vessel, anchored offshore, a few days earlier, and he had said how much he liked the place.

But hang on, this is supposed to be cheerful. Oh, yes: while I was watching the sunrise and waiting for the toast, VOA news told me that Obama is taking the first steps towards lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Listening to international news on VOA or indeed BBC, DW, RFI etc. is like watching unruly children squabbling in the playground, and I’m not sure one can fairly congratulate the bully when, after years of persecuting one much smaller child, he decides one day it would be to his advantage to leave off, and concentrate more on his many other victims. Nevertheless, I for one, as a long-term admirer of Cuba, am pleased. If Obama manages to get this past Congress, where the really vicious Republicans will fight it tooth and nail, Cuba will perhaps feel less beleaguered, and its authorities might be more liberal in their treatment of internal dissent.
This picture was taken in Havana in 2003.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


As far as I’m concerned, the main significance of today’s date is that it is the probable date of Beethoven’s birth, in 1770.

Most pictures of Beethoven are ‘romantic’ in the popular sense, and give people a false idea of a man who, at least in later life, was angry and embittered, dirty, and ridden by syphilis. Unexpectedly for a publication that was at the time (and probably still is) very conventional and conservative in its views, the 9th edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Percy Scholes and published in 1955, has as its frontispiece the portrait by the artist who called himself ‘Batt’; it gives a much more plausible idea of how he may have looked:


Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas? Bah, Humbug!

So, or something like it, said Scrooge in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. The story relates the nightmarish, really quite disturbing mental experiences he went through that made him change his mind and become quite a nice benevolent chap really. It is well worth reading, though one might like to keep some anti-emetic to hand to counter Dickens’s Sentimentality.

But what brings this to mind is something I have only just heard, from my friend Jane in England. Seems it happened a couple of years ago now, and I can’t think how I missed it unless BBC World Service felt it ‘unsuitable’ for reporting.

Seems that the Father Christmas Harrod’s had employed for the season — they’re always rather odd characters and I certainly wouldn’t let any child of mine sit on the knee of a department store Santa — got wildly drunk and barricaded himself into the control room for the outside lights, which included one of those moving banner things that said in big bright lights something seasonal like ‘A Merry Christmas to all our Customers.’ Ingeniously — especially considering that he is said to have drunk two whole bottles of whisky, but that can’t be right; that would kill the most hardened drinker — he re-programmed the lights to read ‘FUCK OFF’.

A Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year to all my readers.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Anonymous Comments

I was brought up to believe that people who said things — to the Police, to the deceived wife or husband, to the Social Security about the foreigner next door who is perhaps cheating on benefits, to anyone really — without giving their name should be ignored. Nevertheless…

Someone who does not give his or her name or a possibility of direct reply has remarked, (apropos of my post concerning people who condemned Communism because they believed, without having read Marx or Lenin, that communist theory held that the end justified the means,) that many people condemned Nazism without having read ‘Mein Kampf’. He or she asks — no doubt rhetorically — if that is bad. There is in fact no such simplistic idea as that the end justifies the means in the works of Marx or Lenin. There is, however, just such an idea in ‘Mein Kampf’, and the recent weaselly attempts by the American Authorities to justify their use of torture shows that they too believe the end justifies the means.  

Certainly an informed condemnation is better than an uninformed one. The comparison is too complex to be dealt with in a blog post of reasonable length, but I would say that, whereas the horrors of Germany under Nazism were fully in accord with the ‘theories’ — such as they were — of Nazism, the horrors of the Soviet Union under Stalin were nothing to do with the theories of Marxism.

It is too easy to say that Hitler was deranged — though he certainly was — as this suggests that but for him all would have been well. The ‘ideas’ of Nazism, even under a deranged leader, would still have led to the concentration camps.

Stalin too was deranged. But it was his paranoia that led to the Gulags and the general paranoia of the Soviet Union, and not the writings of Marx and Lenin. It is a mistake to identify communism with the Soviet Union; it is reasonable to identify Nazism with the Germany of the ’thirties and ’forties.

As I say, the matter is too complex to deal with in a daily blog post. But as I suggested above, informed criticism is better than facile comparisons. By all means read ‘Mein Kampf’; doing so would certainly lend authority to one’s condemnations of Nazism. By all means read Marx and Lenin, and don’t forget that fine writer Engels: doing so might change the minds of many who condemn communism.

Oh, here’s a picture of a Communist Plot:

Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Christmas Limerick

Soon, Christians all over the world will be celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder of their religion. Celebration takes the form of spending huge amounts of money and eating and drinking enough to make themselves ill. It’s what ‘Christians’ do, though not what followers and admirers of Jesus Christ do.

Here, then, is a limerick about Jesus Christ:

There was an old bugger called God
Who put a young virgin in pod
This amazing behaviour
Produced Christ our saviour,
Who died on a cross, poor old sod.

Before the complaints start rolling in, I should just point out that I am not the author of the above: It was written by the Great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and appears in the New Centenary Edition of his collected poems.

 I put a picture of Dylan Thomas in the blog quite recently, so here is one of Christ; it is Piero della Francesca’s great painting of the terrifying scene of the resurrection:

Friday, 12 December 2014

'Social Networks'

My e-mail address is freely available and I usually respond to all but the silliest e-mails. However, I keep getting messages from 'Social Networks' such as Facebook, Linkedin, etc. These messages invariably begin with the pseudo-word 'Hi', and normally I would ignore anyone who says 'Hi' rather than 'Hello' or 'Good Morning', but sometimes these messages originate from people with whom I would in fact like to make contact - for example, someone called Rosalind whose message came to me via Linkedin. It is not possible from such messages to find the person's own e-mail address: one is obliged to click on a link that then inveigles one into the 'social network'. My experience of these has been bad; one gets hassled by feather-brained little girls who want one to be 'friends' (something that is achieved, it seems, by a mouse-click) and look at pictures of their cute kittens. Having with much difficulty disengaged myself from one such 'Social Network' I will not engage with such things at all.
However, as I say, some of these messages seem to come, originally, from people with whom I should indeed like to correspond. If such people would simply send me an e-mail directly, not via a 'Social Network', not saying 'Hi!', and above all not attaching pictures of pussy-cats, (dogs are OK), I shall be happy to respond.
Got that? Meanwhile, here is a picture of some beasts, including I fear a cute pussy-cat:

Thursday, 11 December 2014


The title is a Greek word that sounds like 'Gree-pi'. It's obviosly a loan word from the French 'La Grippe': a specifically continental illness which is worse than a cold but not quite 'flu. Anyway whatever you call it I've got it, have had it for a week, and now, since I've had respiratory problems all my life, has I think turned into something worse. I shall try to see a doctor tomorrow.
But I only bore you with all this because some might be wondering why there have been no blog entries. That's why. Sorry. Hope to resume normal (but not too normal) blog service soon. Meanwhile let's find you a pretty picture. Oh, yes; this will do:

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The End Justifies the Means

At one time, Communists were condemned, by people who had read neither Marx nor Lenin, for believing just that. It’s not a criticism one hears much any more, mainly because those most virulent anti-communists the American authorities clearly and openly believe that their ends justify their means: any means whatsoever.

Including, of course, torture. I won’t say much about the just-published report into the CIA’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’, (their phrase for torture done by or on behalf of America) because it only confirms what anybody not wearing blinkers already knew. I have a photograph of 'Water-boarding' being done at Guantanamo, but I won't sully this blog by posting it. All I want to say is that in all the talk about whether torture ‘works’, whether the ‘information’ it elicits is ‘reliable’, etc. etc., one word is conspicuous by its absence:


Monday, 8 December 2014

Beethoven’s 7th


Symphony, that is. Everyone knows the opening bars of the 5th, and the melody of the vocal part of the 9th. The 3rd or ‘Eroica’ is popular; it’s interesting that in general it’s the odd-numbered symphonies that are now best known, the only exception to that being the 6th or ‘Pastoral’.

The 7th is I suppose my favourite if one must have favourites, and I mention it today because among the many things that happened on this day in other years the really important one was the first performance, in 1813.

Beethoven had great difficulty with, among other things, counterpoint, and believed he was no good at it. The slow movement, a sort of canon with variations, of the 7th shows him to have been, at least this time, very good indeed at counterpoint. Here is a very short extract from the score. The other instruments are silent here (Well, I seem to remember the timpani gently boinging along): just the second violins, violas, ’cellos and double-basses are playing:

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Specialist

There is a splendid little book — I can’t remember the author — called ‘The Specialist’ which consists of dos and don’ts for builders of outdoor privies. It considers such matters as whether the door should open inwards or outwards, the most strategic placing of the building, (near the firewood stack), and the shape of the little ventilation cut-out in the door. It is a fine work, but that is not the kind of specialism I want to write about: My subject is University specialists.

It used to be said of such people that they knew more and more about less and less, until they knew absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. Things have however changed rather; two examples:

I met a French woman who was a professor — a professor, mind — of English Literature at the Sorbonne. I asked her (because I had temporarily forgotten and was sure she would know) who said ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ She had no idea; had clearly never heard the line before. Later I remembered of course; a case of something being on the tip of one’s mental tongue. ‘Oh, it was François Villon who said that about last year’s snows’, I told her the next time we met. Then I left quickly, because the expression on her face gave me an impression I didn’t want confirmed: it looked horribly as if she had not heard of Villon. Now admittedly her subject was English literature, but surely one might expect any educated European, let alone a French University lecturer, to know Villon and his best-known phrase?

Another specialist I met was an American woman who was doing a postgraduate degree in Anglophone African Literature. She was in fact writing a thesis on Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. ‘You know, I suppose, where he got the title from?’ I asked. No, she didn’t, and when I told her she seemed quite indifferent. Again, one might think that if the author on whose work she was doing a thesis knew enough about WB Yeats to choose a celebrated line of his for his novel’s title, then she might at least have been mildly curious.

As I said, things have changed rather: instead of knowing absolutely everything about absolutely nothing, the specialist now, it seems, can get a postgraduate degree, or become a university professor, without knowing very much at all.

Villon was, shall we say, not very photogenic, except there weren’t any cameras in 15th Century France, (or anywhere else, come to that), and Yeats sometimes looked the precious pretentious prat he all too often was. Nevertheless, here are pictures of the pair of them:


L’Anglais, Avec Son Sang Froid Habituel

That’s your actual French that is, and as any fule kno it translates as ‘The Englishman with his usual bloody cold.’ Rather more than a cold in this case; it seems to be what the French call ‘La Grippe’ and the Greeks Γρύπη. Anyway, my presently having it is a partial explanation of the shortage of blog. I hope to be amusing and infuriating you all again soon, meanwhile thank you in advance for all the expressions of sympathy.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Canine Musical Appreciation

There is a Mickey Mouse cartoon in which Pluto, or is it Goofy, anyway a bloodhound-like dog, cruises around the neighbourhood and is attracted by music playing on people’s radios. He sits, bobbing about to the music, and eventually starts to howl along, until he is chased away. I may have mentioned before in this blog a stray dog which used to sit in front of an East European brass band which was playing in the big square in Monastiraki, in Athens. It would sit quietly until the trumpets came in, when it would start to howl. Not, it seemed, in any discomfort — it was free to wander off whenever it chose. I think it enjoyed the trumpets, whose notes are much richer in ‘Upper Partials’ — the higher harmonics — than other brass instruments. No-one chased it away; people, including the band members, liked it.

Lately, Ellie, the dog who lives with me, (a Pluto/Goofy type) has developed a similar reaction to music. Fair enough, she has always howled if I played the trumpet, but then so would you. No, it’s not just that: more recently, she has set up long loud howls when I play an old Rebetika recording: a chap called Jack Grigoriou, playing bouzouki, accompanied by simple guitar arpeggios. The piece is called ‘To minore tou Deke’ and is an extended ‘Taximi’ or improvised introduction, which only at the end breaks into a well-known tune. It is a very fine piece, and was until today the only recorded piece to which Ellie reacted. But this evening she set up long-drawn-out howls when I played a recording of a Mozart string quintet: the late one, K516 in G minor. I had to turn it off, which rather annoyed me. The Grigoriou piece too is in a minor mode — not quite the minor scale we are used to in ‘Western’ music, but with the flattened third characteristic of minor modes.

I shall investigate further, but it looks as if Ellie, a mournful-looking (though generally happy) beast may have a particular thing about pieces in the minor.

But perhaps Ellie’s howling was threnodic: today is the anniversary of Mozart’s death in 1791. A death date shared with Nelson Mandela, which brings me rather tortuously back to yesterday’s subject: the case of the white policeman who strangled a black man to death. Or, as those experts in pussy-footing circumlocution the BBC put it, the policeman who was ‘Involved in the death of an unarmed black man, who was put in a stranglehold.’ ‘Involved in the death.’ Yes, I suppose he was. I suppose you could say that Crippen was ‘Involved in the death’ of his wife.

Here are pictures of Ellie, Mozart, and Mandela:


Thursday, 4 December 2014

Driving Whilst Black

That’s the crime black people in America have hypothesized to explain why the police arbitrarily stop black drivers.

It’s a bitter little joke and oddly enough it seems the people — by no means all black — presently demonstrating on the streets of New York are in high spirits. Oddly? Well, something similar was common in England in September 1939. People didn’t like to admit it at the time, but years later they would quietly tell one ‘You know, I was actually pleased when they declared war.’ Similarly, things in America have now reached the point where no sane person could any longer pretend that the police, or even the courts, are colour-blind. Having a clearly definable enemy to point to — (young black men, white policemen, Muslims, Jews — it doesn’t have to be the actual enemy, though this time it all too clearly is) — can be a relief, even a joy.

In case anyone has missed it, I should say that yet again a policeman has killed someone; this time by deliberate strangling rather than shooting. Yet again, a ‘Grand Jury’ has decided that the policeman has no case to answer. Oh, and need I say? yet again it was a white policeman and a black victim.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Readership Drop; Limerick

Well as I expected my mysogynistic post yesterday has resulted in readership dropping almost to zero.

So here today — some people have said they like them — is another limerick about an animal. We have reached ‘P’:

‘Are we in the church or the zoo, Ma?’
‘Hush, dear! You must learn to humour
Such populist features
As “Blessing of Creatures”.’
‘But in the next pew, Ma — a Puma!’

I was unable to find a picture of a puma in a church, but here is a pair of them. A web search for pictures of these splendid beasts is complicated by the fact that ‘Puma’ is the name of some spectacularly ugly shoes.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Women Who…

Stand at the supermarket checkout, gazing vaguely into the distance, and only when told the total say ‘Oh!’ and start looking for their handbag.

When you have explained that you are too busy just now to answer their e-mail properly, at once send you two more.

Say ‘I must go now’, then stand in the doorway talking for the next ten minutes.

Stand in doorways in general, or other narrow places, making no attempt to move until one has to ask them.

While visiting, take the opportunity of one’s temporary absence from the room to ‘tidy’ the papers on the desk, or lift the lids of saucepans and change the heat under them, or read the labels on one’s medicine packets, etc. etc…

In general, insist on ‘helping’ one when one has not asked for help.

I could go on for pages, but have already said more than enough to cancel the recent increase in readership.

Monday, 1 December 2014

December Miscellany

On December the first 1919, Lady Nancy Astor (presumably she was not yet a lady, at least in the sense of being ‘raised’ to the peerage) took her seat in the House of Commons; the first woman MP.

It was also on December the first — I can’t offhand remember in which year — that a brave black woman in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her seat to some boor of a white man. She was arrested for breaking Alabama’s racial segregation laws, and this led to a boycott of the bus service by black people. This was a seminal event in the struggle for racial equality; a struggle that as recent events in the benighted United States of America show all too clearly is still going on.

About this time in 1974, palaeoanthropologists in Africa found the skeleton of ‘Lucy’, who had been half-woman half-ape. That is an over-simplification I fear: we can’t exactly say that Lucy was the great-great-great…grandmother of us all, but the discovery was palaeoanthropologically (now there’s a nice word, which I just made up and must add to my Microsoft Word’s semi-literate dictionary) very important. She is called Lucy because the discoverer was listening to ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts' Club Band’ on his Sony Walkman at the time.

Readers may remember that a week or two ago I reported the arrival here in this little Greek island of a boat overloaded with Syrian refugees. According to statistics compiled by, I think, an American organization, there are now some 30,000 Syrian refugees in Greece, and their situation is desperate: they daren’t go back to Syria, indeed it would, quite rightly, be illegal for the Greek authorities to send them back. But the law does not allow them to leave Greece, because they have no papers. The Greek authorities will not give them any papers, nor will they allow them to work. So many of them are cold, wet, hungry, and homeless.

Here is a somewhat speculative picture of what Lucy may have looked like: I think she is the one on the left.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fairy Tales

My regular readers (you can probably delete that ‘s’ )  may remember a post of a week or so ago in which I moaned about the failure of anyone to turn up to our ‘Fairy-Tale Afternoon.’ Nothing daunted, Kyriaki got the shop ready again yesterday afternoon, and to our delight (and I hope and believe theirs too) three children turned up: a boisterous 8-year-old girl, a rather quieter younger girl, and a rather subdued very small boy. The mothers too came. The children were provided with cake and at once ran off, heading, in spite of the dark and wet, for the deserted playground. Kyriaki meanwhile was busy preparing ouzo and mezés for the mothers, but something had to be done at once to recapture our escaping audience. I was therefore rather dropped in it when Kyriaki screamed after the departing children ‘We’re starting!’ and went back to preparing mezés. ‘You tell the first story, Simon.’

Hmm… three Greek children who had probably heard of but never yet seen this strange Englishman, and I had to entertain them … luckily my friend Jane had sent me a good text of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (not the same as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk) and I had read the first part. So I told them, in Greek, about the killing of the first giant, domesticating the story a bit with Greek references. (e.g. goats rather than sheep). Of course, they particularly liked the bit where the giant sticks his head out of the pit and Jack lops it off with his axe, so I embellished this by saying he brought the head back to show to the mayor as proof he should get the reward.

I finished by telling them that if they wanted to hear what happened to the next giant (I still haven’t read that bit myself) they must come back next week, with friends. Then I went outside to join the other grown-ups for a crafty fag, and so missed Kyriaki’s telling the children a story from the Thousand and One Nights.

I think they had a good time; I know I did. I think they will be back next week.


‘Once Upon a Time’

Fairy Tales for children from three years old to ninety years old.

Told in simple Greek by Kyriaki Theodorou and Simon Darragh.

Every Saturday afternoon from 5.30 until the cows come home,


In Plateia Christou (the main village square).

All ages and nationalities welcome.

There will be cake for the children, and the bar will be open for the grown-ups.


Saturday, 29 November 2014

More Illiteracy from the BBC

On BBC World Service News this morning we heard that in Port au Prince there are ‘Protests against long-delayed elections’. The identical phrase was used again an hour later, so it wasn’t just a slip by a busy editor.

Now if, as seems reasonable, that means what it says, it’s very odd: the people of Haiti don’t want elections? But nevertheless they are displeased that elections are long-delayed? Well yes; I suppose if the unwanted elections are inevitable, then best get them over with rather than put off the evil moment.

Odder still, BBC News notwithstanding, I have heard from other sources that in fact most of the people of Haiti are keen to have elections, indeed that they have been protesting against the delays, not against the elections.

Is it possible that that is actually what the BBC meant? That is to say, something quite other than what it said? I might be thought to have a bee in my bonnet about the Beeb, but when the writers of its international news show themselves incapable of meaning what they say or saying what they mean, it’s time they were replaced by people who know how to express a meaning in good English.
'It must be true: I heard it on the BBC'.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Owl

Such are things in America that one could almost be forgiven for feeling confused about which particular case of white policemen shooting dead unarmed young black people is currently causing riots. Almost.
BBC World Service, with its usual sense of proportion, is no longer giving much time to the matter, in its haste to spend up to a third of its International News talking about a cricketer killed by a ball hitting his head.

Perhaps the wisest move for sane people is simply to wait quietly for people like the BBC and the American Police forces to come to their senses. It could be a very long wait, so, talking of wisdom, here is today’s limerick:

‘Don’t expect me,’ said the owl,
‘to mix with day-birds, cheek by jowl.
I come out at night;
Edward Lear was quite right:
the owl is an elegant  fowl.’

This is a Great Horned Owl.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


There is not much any of us individual, normal, common people, unorganized into protest groups and living far away from events, can do about the blatant racist injustice that is happening in America just now. That is in fact happening all the time over there. We must of course register our disgust, but we must also try to enjoy life and not get too depressed by those who make a hell in heaven’s despite.

So let us return to the limericks:

Said Jill, ‘Whatever’s the matter, Jack?’
As he dropped his pail with a clatter back
Down in the well:
‘There’s no need to yell,
Toads are harmless: it’s only a Natterjack.’



This one looks as pissed off as many of us are feeling. Natterjacks are also among the toads who can do that blowy-up thing, which I think acts like the bag of a bagpipe and thus enables them to make toadish noises for longer at a go.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Acute Shortage of Blog

'Acute' does not mean 'Severe': it means, rather, temporary. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, but I felt unable to write anything or even to paste in one of my limericks today because I am horrified by the legal decision that a policeman who shot a young boy in America did nothing wrong.
'Matilda told such dreadful lies / it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes' but it seems Obama can tell worse lies and no-one bats an eyelid: following the high court decision he said that American Society was based on the rule of law. The very slightest glance at the history of America since the disaster of Columbus's 'discovery' of the place shows that on the contrary it is based on a virulent racist violence that persists until today.
But let's not dwell on these wickednesses: here's a pretty picture to keep you going until I can write here again:

This is in fact the city of Volos as seen from the mountain village of Makrynitsa.

Monday, 24 November 2014

English as She is Spoke

A long time ago, ‘Oxford English’ was regarded as the standard of pronunciation to which we should all aspire. Not entirely snobbery: it would surely be a good thing if we could all understand what other anglophones were saying, and for that a single standard is useful.

Eventually however it was realized that ‘Oxford English’ wouldn’t do. For one thing, the real people of Oxford speak with something close to a west country accent, and for another the University people — who are about as ‘Oxford’ as an American airman in Okinawa is Japanese — all too often don’t so much speak as bray and whinny.

‘BBC English’ became the standard. The English of the News reader, who was required to wear full evening dress with tails to read the nine o’clock news on the radio. (The radio, mind: this was before television.) All over the world, wherever English was taught as a foreign language, ‘BBC English’ became the standard, and those abroad who had radios would listen eagerly and copy.

Later, regional accents became acceptable which is fine so long as they can be understood by all anglophones including learners. More recently, grammar has become optional.

I have taught English as a foreign language. I found that I had to warn pupils about the BBC: they too had heard that BBC English was the standard, and would say ‘But I heard it said like that on the World Service’, and I would have to tell them (what they found hard to believe) that the people on the radio now have never been taught grammar or diction; that they probably know in fact rather less about their language than, say, a Greek child studying for the Cambridge Proficiency exam.

Grammar can be considered a branch of logic. To speak ungrammatically is often to make  little or no sense. Today’s rant was in fact provoked by something a BBC presenter said this morning, and whose meaning I am still trying to work out: she was talking of how useful something or other would have been had it been available after a recent disaster:

‘Twice as many lives might not have been lost,’ she said.



I must apologise for the picture above: the newsreader (Frank Phillips)
 has had the temerity to remove his jacket and appear in his waistcoat.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Why does one bother?

Kyriaki, the proprietor of the little bookshop cum café here in the village, recently had the idea of ‘Fairy Story Afternoons’: every Saturday at 5.30 in the afternoon, children could come to the shop with their parents and listen to fairy tales read by Kyriaki and others. Refreshments, as they say, provided, for both children and adults. She spoke to the school teachers about this, especially the teacher at the infants school, also to any parents she met. Many said ‘What a nice idea; of course we’ll come.’ She made posters and went round putting them up at the schools, the Post Office, the Town Hall, the supermarkets, the bakeries…

On Saturday afternoon she gave the shop a special clean and swapped the bar stools for lower child-friendly chairs; she put away all the ashtrays and when I turned up at 5.15 I found her outside having a crafty fag; she told me that this afternoon we must smoke (if we must smoke), outside for the children’s sake.

She had the first story prepared; she was going to tell one from the Arabian Nights. I had found — with the help of a friend in England — a good version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (not the same as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ but a specifically English — well Cornish —tale, so unlikely to be known by Greek children) and had worked out how to tell it in Greek.

Cigarettes finished we went inside for an ouzo, and waited for the first people to come. And waited. And waited. We gave up around 6.30. Not a single parent or child had bothered to turn up.