Friday, 31 January 2014

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828

On this day — January the 31st — in 1797, Schubert was born. He died just 31 years later.

When I first started reading music history in about 1960, the books never said why Beethoven went deaf, Schubert died young, and Delius was paralytic. It was in fact syphilis in all three cases. This might suggest they led rackety promiscuous lives, and I think indeed Delius behaved pretty outrageously when young. Schubert was I think no more promiscuous than other young men of his time, and Beethoven was a prude who had idealistic platonic relationships with his young women piano pupils; his best-known song cycle was called ‘An die ferne Geliebte’, ‘To the distant beloved.’ It wasn’t screwing around that did for them, it was the fact that penicillin hadn’t been discovered. The human race would probably have died out by now had it not been for Penicillin.

Many people, including many accomplished and sensitive musicians and music lovers, think Schubert rather trivial. I think this is, paradoxically, because of his extraordinary melodic gift: people hear the beautiful tune and fail to notice what is going on underneath and around it; the strange harmonic shifts for one thing. One of the last things Beethoven, whom surely no-one regards as trivial, said was that he regarded Schubert as his successor.

Another thing about Schubert was his ‘late’ works, such as the last quartets, the piano sonata Deutsch 960, and of course the great string quintet. How did it happen that such a young man could write works that had that combination of resigned calm and passionate intensity that we hear in Beethoven’s last works and that we associate especially with ‘late’ work, not just in music but also the other arts? I believe that it was actually always there, but no-one noticed: one can hear it, if one listens carefully, particularly to the piano accompaniment and not just the pretty tune, even in such early work as the song ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, written when he was sixteen.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Look out: here comes a poem

It’s almost funny to see how the readership of this blog plummets at the mere mention of poetry. Almost. Nevertheless, I shall continue from time to time to put poems in it.

At the risk of exposing an unexpectedly sentimental streak in my character (my excuse is that this was written 20 something years ago) here is an all-too-autobiographical poem. ‘Clones’ by the way is a small town near Monaghan in Ireland, and is pronounced ‘Cloe-ness’.



Had it been as light as that – as light as when we three
drank whiskey in a Clones pub, and you two huddled, moved
your web of warmth to fold me in your common, unchanged love,
had it been as light as that, you’d still lie here with me.

But how to still the sudden thrill when, through the sleeping house,
− back door, staircase, purple room – a trail of tiny creaks
betrays your shyly seeking feet, your shadowed shape, that wakes
my two-years drugged and deadened heart? Oh, I might touch your face

as gentle as the scarf you wore to keep you from the night,
but you lay in my arms, my dear – my demon dragged you down
where sick and savage hearts can swim, but innocence will drown −
you could not lift my leaden heart to love as light as that.

Simon Darragh, Monaghan, 198?.


Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Pete Seeger, William Blake, and Tom Paine.

Pete Seeger has just died. Fair enough, we was well into his nineties.

Appropriately or ironically — both men were, in their different ways, fighters for freedom and justice — today is also the (anniversary of the) day Tom Paine was born.

In December of 1792, William Blake and Tom Paine happened to meet in St Paul’s Churchyard, so William was able to warn Thomas not to go home, where the police were waiting for him. Paine went instead to Dover and took the ferry to France, and later went to America. Counterfactual history is of course a lot of nonsense, but it is disturbing to imagine what might have happened or not happened had that meeting not taken place. A recent book — ‘Blake’s Agitation’ by Steven Goldsmith — casts doubt on Blake’s personal engagement in political action, (though his later influence on libertarian politics could hardly be denied). That day in the churchyard however, wittingly or not, Blake did something of great political significance.

Even Voice of America, which slavishly follows the views of the American Government, devoted several minutes of its morning news today to the life and work of Pete Seeger, with phrases like ‘Instrumental in the revival of American Folk Music’. Seeger having been a friend of Woody Guthrie it was not so much a revival as a continuation. VoA played snatches of several of his songs, and even mentioned his persecution during the McCarthy era. One song they didn’t play was his simple funny one mocking the Murcan Way of Life ‘Little Boxes’.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Today, a Greek Lesson. (Or an English Lesson for Greeks.)

In fact I did this for a Greek waitress who needed to explain things to Anglophones.

Where is the toilet?
Round the corner.
Θα σας το φέρω.
I will bring it to you.
Έχετε ψιλά;
Do you have change?
Τoasted sandwich.
Θέλει λίγα λεπτά
It will take a few minutes.
Δεν μας παρατάς;
Why don’t you leave us alone?
What is Tsipouro?
It is like ouzo, only even stronger.
My dog’s got no nose
How does he smell?
Very bad.
Walnut cake. (Not walnut pie.)
Το φτιάχνει η Μαμά μου
My mother makes it.
Είναι κερασμένο (απώ το μαγαζί)
It’s on the House.
Είναι κερασμένο (απώ κάπιον δικό του)
Your friend paid (already).
Τι είδος καφέ; (Μπύρα κλπ.)
What kind of coffee? (Beer etc.)
Δεν δίνω δίφρανκο
I don’t give a damn.
‘Cooked Breakfast’ και ‘English Breakfast’
Θα πει: αυγά, μπέικον, λουκάνικο, τα πάντα. (Που φυσικά δεν θα βρούνε πουθενά.)
‘What does Αέριδες mean?’
Breezes (Μπρίζις).
Θα προχωρήσετε ευθεία κάτω
You go straight down. (Downhill.)
Να σας κεράσω κάτι; Τι θα πίνετε;
Can I offer you something (on the house)? What would you like to drink?
Γλυκό του κουταλιού. Έιναι φτιαγμένο από φρούτο
A sticky sweet. It’s made from fruit.
Σπιτικό γλυκό
Home-made sweet.
Πρέπει να το κρατήσω ακίνητο
I have to keep it still. (Τι;)
Καπνιστός τόνο, φτιαγμένος στην Αλόννησο
Smoked tuna, made in Alonnisos.
Λυπάμαι αλλά δεν έχω. Έχει ήδη τελειώσει
Sorry but we don’t have any – it’s all gone.
Παρακαλώ, τι θα θέλετε;
Yes please, what would you like?
Βυσσινάδα (σπιτική) με ολόκληρα βύσσινα
Home-made cherryade with whole cherries.
Δεν έχω πολύ μυαλό, έιμαι ταπεινή σερβιτόρα
I’m not very clever, I’m just a humble waitress.


Monday, 27 January 2014

The Mysterious Tale of the Travelling Tombstone

The Jewish museum in Hamburg has had for many years in its collection half the grave stone of a prominent eighteenth-century Rabbi, who had been buried in the Jewish cemetery in the centre of the city. No prizes for guessing how the stone got broken, but what happened to the other half? Surely even the most enthusiastically anti-Semitic  Nazi wouldn’t carry off half a gravestone as a trophy? The other half finally turned up only a few years ago, miles away in the sand and mud at the mouth of the River Elbe. Mysteriouser and Mysteriouser.

What had happened was that after the Second World War, during which Hamburg had been pretty much flattened by allied bombing, the vast amounts of rubble was taken out there to strengthen the sea defences. Sea erosion, aided by a quite recent hurricane, has turned up all sorts of interesting and disturbing things, including even gas-powered street-light standards, that had once been in Hamburg and are now in the Elbe estuary mud.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

'Classical' Music

Not long ago the Greek Government noticed that the latest cuts in numbers of public employees demanded by Angela Merkel ‘happened’ to coincide exactly with the number of people ‘working’ for the state broadcasting service. (Fair enough, some of them did indeed work, but most neither knew nor cared about broadcasting and sat around drinking coffee; they had got their jobs because auntie Eleni was screwing the director of coffee-breaks or whatever.) So in its infinite wisdom the Greek Government simply closed down the entire public broadcasting service, and we had the unprecedented situation of Greece’s becoming just about the only country in the world, including the ‘Third World’, without a state broadcasting service.

I used to listen to Trito Programma, the ‘Classical’ music channel, a lot. I put ‘Classical’ in quotation marks because although we all use the term we would none of us find it easy to define. It certainly doesn’t mean ‘Music of the Classical era’; it runs all the way from pre-Renaissance liturgical chant to the noises, or absences of noise, of Glass and Cage. One definition might be ‘Music that is carefully and accurately written down, and played as carefully and accurately.’ Another might be ‘The stuff that makes most people groan and reach for the knob to find some undemanding audible wallpaper.’ A feature of ‘Classical’ music is that one listens to it. Or not, as the case may be.

Trito Programma had its faults. The mixer operator would simply turn the compression and limiter controls up full and then go out for coffee again, so that double-forte orchestral tuttis actually came out quieter than flute solos, and worst of all the presenters had vast egos and loved the sound of their own voices, so would demonstrate their musical expertise by reading out, with wild mispronunciations, the backs of CD boxes, then perhaps fade in the music a few seconds late as if it were mere background music. But it was nevertheless a lot better than no broadcast ‘serious’ music. Then, suddenly one afternoon at about three, there was no more Trito Programma or any other state channel.

But this morning, having rigged up some sort of external aerial, I trawled through the FM band and heard some late nineteenth century orchestral music which I couldn’t identify. It might have been Tchaikovsky, or perhaps Mahler in one of his vulgar tea-shoppe moods. It might at times have been, God help us, one of the Johann Strausses. I hoped for an explanatory announcement at its end, but got instead the once-familiar Trito Programma call sign, with a list of frequencies, before the announcer, without telling us what we had heard or what we were about to hear, put on a CD of late baroque fortepiano concerti.

Reception of this station here in Alonnisos is not brilliant. You can find it not at the announced frequencies but at 102.9 MHz. You will probably have to press the ‘Mono’ button as the stereo signal, needing more bandwidth, breaks down into distortion and hisses. But it’s great to have Trito Programma again, and an improvement is that they can evidently no longer afford smart-arse presenters but just play the music.  

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Davos Schmavos

The ‘World Economic Forum’ is a yearly event at which the very rich gather to display their riches and exchange conscience-soothing specious arguments to show that their being thousands of times richer than the next person is somehow good for the next person. This year some commentators have been disappointed that ‘only’ 16% of the delegates are women. I am disappointed that it is that many. The disgusting sickness of amassing more wealth than one needs and then showing off seems to me very male. True, there have always been exceptions: the morally imbecilic such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, and the many who think that ‘Equality’ means doing all the things, however revolting, that have hitherto been done almost exclusively by men.

That’s all for today. Surely this post at least should provoke some comment?

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Great Wurlitzer Disaster

When I lived near the seaside town of Lee-on-Solent I had an aged piano teacher who, like others I have had, spent as much time telling me incidents from his very interesting life as teaching me piano. (No wonder I still can’t play very well.) One of his fingers was oddly splayed at the tip: it had been crushed under a rifle butt in the First World War and the doctor had wanted to amputate it, but he had begged him not to.

He had worked as a cinema pianist in the silent film era: a difficult job; the pianist had to crane upwards and sideways to follow the film while improvising an accompaniment, tacking together phrases from popular pieces and always ready to change mood to match the action or lack of it. When the talkies came in the management of the cinema installed a Wurlitzer organ: one of those vast electric organs whose console, concealed in the orchestra pit, would rise in a blaze of coloured lights, organist already playing, on a hydraulic column in front of the screen. His job now was to play a medley of popular songs, with plenty of use of the bizarre special effects like train whistles and cow moos that were a feature of the Wurlitzer, during the interval. Then he was free until the end of the evening, when he had to play the National Anthem while the audience rose to attention. (Ah, those were the days.)

Naturally, between the end of the interval and the end of the main feature he would slip over the road to the pub. A slight miscalculation of the length of the main film was his undoing: one night he had had one or two too many, but nevertheless dashed back to the cinema and crept into his place at the organ console down in the pit. Noticing that the film still had about half an hour to run, he dozed off. And in his sleep he slumped sideways, leaning on the lever that set the hydraulic gear running. The console rose, concealing the screen just as the film was reaching its dramatic climax. The indignant cries of the audience failed to wake him, the film had to be abandoned, and only with great difficulty was my piano teacher got down again. End of job.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Poetry and Verse

In connection with Byron I mentioned the distinction between poetry and verse. Many people might disagree with what follows (if they read it): this is what I think; how I use the two terms.

Poetry is the essence, the distillation, of language: a poem is a single malt as opposed to the good claret of an essay by Thomas de Quincey or the Watney’s Red Barrel of Frederick Forsyth. In poetry, words are chosen not just for their denotations but also for their connotations, their length and sound, their stresses, their possible rhymes of course, and even for their shapes on the page. (And that last is not a new idea: George Herbert was doing it 400 years ago.)

Much poetry is written in verse, but not all verse is poetry. Verse is just words, almost prose, arranged in lines with some sort of rhythm and often rhyme. I don’t think poetry in the sense I’m using the word can be sustained for more than a page, unless one is Rilke and possessed by Angels. Most poets, even good ones, degenerate into mere verse when they try to write long poems.

Here are two examples from Tennyson’s very long (40 pages in a small print edition) poem ‘Maud’. For the first, so as not to be too selectively unfair, I have deliberately avoided the many highly ‘romantic’ episodes in the story and taken an ‘ordinary’ bit about people going home after a party:


Now half to the setting moon are gone,
            And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
            The last wheel echoes away.


That is one of the places where the huge farrago of verse that is ‘Maud’ rises to the level of Poetry.  Now a couplet a page or two away from that verse:


Her brother is coming back tonight,
Breaking up my dream of delight.


That is dire; it wouldn’t get past the editor of the South Norwood Amateur Poets’ magazine. Tennyson could only get away with it because he was Poet Laureate. Well, I’m not sure he had yet been awarded the laureateship (often the kiss of death to a poet) when he wrote ‘Maud’, but he was a big deal and had written some very fine poetry. That couplet might be verse; poetry it aint.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Two Birthdays

Today, the 22nd of January, is, or are, or would have been (Oh you know what I mean) the birthday(s) of Francis Bacon and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Two people about whom there are misconceptions.

Francis Bacon (not the painter, the other one) gets called things like ‘The Father of Modern Science.’ But he wasn’t a scientist, and not just because the word had not yet been coined. ‘Philosopher’ would be nearer the mark, and in those days people whom we should now call scientists were called philosophers. Later those kinds of philosophers became known as ‘Natural Philosophers’. Francis Bacon rarely if ever ‘did’ what we should now call science: experiments designed to refute (not ‘confirm’) speculative theories. What he did do was suggest that this was the way what would later be called science should proceed: by observation and experiment. Up until then even those philosophers who tried to tell us how the world actually is contented themselves with speculation, but rarely if ever tested their ideas by observation or experiment. In ancient Athens this led one wit, who had heard that a certain group of philosophers had defined ‘Man’ as ‘Featherless Biped’ to pluck a chicken and toss it over their garden wall.


Byron is commonly said to have ‘fought’ for Greek Independence, but his fighting was metaphorical; it was in the field of what is now called Public Relations. He was frightfully famous, so when he came out in favour of an Independent Greek nation it boosted morale among those who were fighting, and encouraged Greece’s friends in other countries. True, he did go to Greece and engage in diplomatic efforts to unite various factions who seemed more interested in fighting each other rather than the Turks (so what’s new?), and he liked to swan around in various forms of Greek costume, notably the Souliot which involved wearing a skirt; something he enjoyed. Did he ‘Die for Greece’? Well, he caught malaria in the notoriously unhealthy marshy area of Missolonghi and died.

Wasn’t he a great poet too? He did write a few beautiful lyric poems — short concentrated pieces of about sonnet length — but his literary reputation rests on the long works like ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Childe Harold’. Fine literature, certainly, but verse, not poetry.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Anniversaries again

Today is a public holiday, the equivalent of an English Bank Holiday, in the United States of America. It would have been Martin Luther King’s birthday five days ago on the 15th, and the US government has decreed that in memory of him there should be a holiday on the third Monday in January.

It is also the Anniversary of the Wannsee conference, where the Nazis set forth the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Problem’ of the Jews. That was in 1942. The year may seem surprising, because the Nazis had already been persecuting and killing Jews for years before that. However until the Wannsee conference the deportations, incarcerations, and killings had been thinly disguised as ‘Resettlement’ and ‘Euthanasia’ programmes. At Wannsee it was made clear that the intention was to rid Germany of all Jews, not just by deportation but by systematic extermination.

Not a very jolly thing to be writing about, but with the recent increase, or at least increased visibility, of racist attitudes people need to be reminded where such attitudes lead.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Jew Jokes

There is of course a kind of Jew Joke that is told by non-Jews to other non-Jews, and that ranges from the mildly offensive to the deeply offensive. You will I hope be relieved to read that that is not what I’m writing about.

I mean the kind of Jewish, mainly Yiddish, joke that is told by Jews to other Jews, and is nearly always self-mocking; Yiddish culture has a capacity for self-mockery that is, or ought to be, the envy of other cultures. My favourite such joke is one I have known for years, but I was reminded of it by its being told again in a review in the latest (well, the latest to reach me) issue of the Times Literary Supplement.

Stalin gets a telegram from Trotsky (who was a Jew.) Stalin is pleased, as the telegram reads ‘Dear Comrade, I was wrong; you were right: I should apologise.’ Stalin shows the telegram to his secretary (who happens to be a Jew.) The secretary — a brave man, as befits someone working with Stalin — says ‘I’m sorry, comrade, but you have misunderstood. Actually the telegram reads ‘Dear Comrade, I was wrong? You were right? I should apologise?’

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Halcyon Days

The phrase ‘Halcyon Days’ is usually used rather vaguely to refer — often regretfully and nostalgically — to a time when things were better than they are now, the sun always shone, etc. It is one of the countless words whose once highly specific meaning has been diluted by careless use; ‘Meld’ is another: it used to mean ‘declare’ or ‘announce’, especially in card games but now, probably because it sounds like a mixture of ‘Weld’ and ‘Melt’, most people use it to mean join, merge, or mix.

Anyway, ‘Halcyon Days’: there was an ancient belief that the kingfisher — Αλκυών in Greek — made a floating nest on the sea in the middle of winter, and for two weeks the benevolent gods kept the weather calm and bright while the eggs hatched. For some strange meteorological reason there is in fact in Greece a period of about two weeks of fine, warm, sunny weather in the middle of winter before the usual gloom, cold and high winds set in again. Here in the Northern Sporades we have lately been having Halcyon Days in that ‘proper’ older sense.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Aloni

Today, another visit to the archives of 'The Aloni'. This below is the second issue:

That's the first page; this was the first issue to cover two sides. Here is the other side:

If the print is too small, I believe that by clicking on it you can enlarge it.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Raymond Chandler

When I wrote about ‘Genre Fiction’ the other day there was one glaring omission: Raymond Chandler. Chandler was an American ‘Pulp Writer’. That is to say, he wrote stories, most of them short, for cheap magazines intended for people who don’t read much, but want something to fill an idle half-hour on the way to work or in a waiting-room. Comics for grown-ups; thrown away when finished.

But he was a good writer, and a friend (and in at least one case enemy) of established ‘respectable’ writers; he cared about literature and his longer books are well worth reading, and not ‘just’ for the very clever well-plotted stories. He is remembered now mostly for the detective stories featuring the private detective Philip Marlowe, now indelibly associated with Humphrey Bogart because of the films made of some of the books in the ’fifties.

Here’s a poem of mine about those Marlowe stories:



Detective Outfit


The frosted glass in the office door
comes as standard, with the hat,
revolver, double-breasted coat —
but yes, you will need more.

You should find, in the bottom drawer,
behind the typing-paper, carbon,
a half-full bottle — Scotch or Bourbon —
most find they soon need more.

Your first case — ‘Innocent or whore?’
has been arranged. The gumshoe’s art
is not to take these things to heart —
we shouldn’t tell you more.

You must supply the square-cut jaw,
the hard-boiled cynic’s laugh, to cover
that hint of disappointed lover —
no-one can give you more.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014


Today is, or would have been, Martin Luther King's birthday.

It is also the anniversary of the Great Boston Molasses Disaster. That sounds like a Goon Show episode, but was in fact ghastly: on the 15th of January 1919 a storage tank exploded: it had contained two and a half million gallons of molasses, which had fermented in the unseasonal heat. A wave of molasses about ten feet high flowed through the town. 21 people were killed and 150 injured. Cleaning up took weeks, and it is said that even now, on hot days, there is a whiff of ancient molasses in some parts of town.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Jules Laforgue

No time to write much today; I've been very busy with other things. (Modifying my new oven, helping someone whose house got flooded, inventing a Royal Jelly pump with 'Honey Boy', attending a pantomime read-through).
But I wanted to say that I am reading the poems of Jules Laforgue. Now I speak French 'Comme une vache l'espagnole' as they say, so I'm reading them in the excellent Penguin Classics edition, with a prose crib at the bottom of each page, notes at the back, and a long explanatory introduction, all provided by Graham Dunstan Martin. They really are extraordinary; I should have read them long ago and I recommend them to anyone with any interest in poetry. And even more to anyone with no interest in poetry.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Genre Fiction

‘Genre Fiction’ is the stuff that fits more or less neatly into categories: spy stories, science fiction, and above (or below) all, detective stories. It has been a pejorative term; ‘genre’ fiction as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. Genre fiction is usually, perhaps always, plot driven: there is a tellable story and we want to know what happens next, whereas in literary fiction such things as character development and abstract ideas are what matter and the plot is just a useful framework. Virginia Woolf is, in this respect if no other, a typical ‘literary’ novelist. In one of her best-known novels, ‘To the Lighthouse’, a family and friends on a seaside holiday plan a trip to the eponymous nautical erection, but it rains and the trip is put off. Later the weather clears up and, in the last pages, they finally make it. Gosh. But that is vulgarly sensational compared to the work of Anita Brookner, who about thirty years ago, to everyone’s astonishment including her own, won the Booker prize for a novel in which absolutely nothing at all happens.

So is there a general rule that the less that ‘happens’ in it, the more ‘Literary’ the novel? I don’t think so. Iris Murdoch, for instance, wrote literary rather than genre novels, but in many of them rather a lot happens, some of it quite sensational. And there are, and probably always have been, ‘Genre’ novels that somehow contrive to have ‘Literary merit’. (Really, what a load of old crap actually: there are good books and there are bad books. Or rather, there are books one enjoys and books one doesn’t.) But going along with that idea for the moment, there is, for instance, John Le Carré. He writes spy stories, but there is more to them than ‘just’ the story: they engage with moral issues, they consider the personalities of their protagonists, they can be taken seriously, they can be called ‘Literary’ novels. And P.D. James’s popular detective stories featuring the poet-sleuth Adam Dalgleish are most certainly literary. It’s no anomaly that P.D. James was for many years president of the Society of Authors. So do we read such books ‘On two levels’? The exciting story taking care of our infantile wish to know ‘what happens next’, while our ‘higher’ faculties engage themselves with the more ‘serious’ parts? Surely not: is it not all of a piece; is there anything wrong with wanting a ripping yarn with, or rather as part of, our culture? Somehow I am reminded of the German novelist Stefan Zweig, who when his wife complained at breakfast ‘You only want me for sex’, peered over his newspaper to say ‘But what’s so only?’

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Vampyre

About 200 years ago Byron, Shelley, Mary (surname kept changing; sometimes Godwin, sometimes Shelley and sometimes Wollstonecraft, unless I’m mixing her up with someone else) and assorted wives, girlfriends, and hangers-on were swanning around Europe, scandalized reports of their goings-on reaching England to the prurient delight of the public. One dull evening in, I think, Geneva, (most evenings in Switzerland are dull) they amused themselves by making up ghost and horror stories; some of them later wrote up their stories. The only one that’s still remembered and read was Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.

However, at least one other story from the group got written up and even published, in London in 1819. This was Doctor John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’. Polidori was nominally Byron’s private physician, but mostly he was just along for the ride. He probably himself paid for the publication of his story: it was hardly the literary sensation of the year, and sank almost without trace. I say ‘Almost’ because I’ve managed to get hold of a copy and am currently reading it. The style has the pretentious verbosity of much writing of the period: for instance, the Vampyre and his companion, when they leave England, don’t ‘cross the channel’; they ‘pass the circling waters’. But the story is short and quite fun; certainly better than the film I watched half of last night: that cinematic classic ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’, featuring the popular song ‘There’s a Ghoul in School’.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

No Blog Entry Today

I have spent most of today making an amazing new bread-baking oven which fits into the flue of the wood-burning stove. No, the bread will not come out smoked: the hot flue gases enter the bottom of a chamber just above the stove, and go out again at the top of the chamber, continuing normally through the rest of the flue. The oven itself is a metal box suspended within the chamber, with, of course, an entrance that passes through the wall of the chamber. I have not yet baked a loaf in it, but am reasonably confident it will work.
Inventing, designing, making, and fitting this have exhausted me. I had planned to write something about so-called 'Genre Fiction'. Tomorrow perhaps.

A flea and a fly in a flue:
Said the fly 'Let us flee!'
Said the flea 'Let us fly!'
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Feta tin: a vital part of Modern Greek Culture


In England feta — the word translates as ‘slice’, from some quaint notion that it’s possible to make a cohesive slice of the stuff — comes in polythene packets. In Greece it comes in tins. The feta tin is about a foot square and eighteen inches tall. The cheese, in half-kilo blocks, is speared out from the liquid in which it swims; a viscid yellow substance into whose provenance it is wiser not to enquire. When the tin is empty it’s put on the shop doorstep, and the lucky finder takes it to the nearest drain to empty off the yellow gunge before carting it triumphantly home.

One’s feta tin, once bagged, presents infinite possibilities. Those of a horticultural leaning turn it upside-down and, with their skeparni — a primitive adze used for everything for which you don’t use a feta tin — bash a few holes in the base. Half-filling it with earth and half with copria — goat or donkey dung — you put in your geranium and add it to the row in front of the house. If you like, you can paint the tin. Blue of course; paint in Greece is blue. The other colour is white, which you get not from paint but from asvesti, of which more another time. These two national colours derive from the flag, which itself derives from Bavaria: about two hundred years ago the Greeks, short of a king, took the Bavarian one, complete with flag. Be careful to whom of your Greek acquaintance you point this out.

Or you can make a bucket for watering your plants. Find a piece of wood the same width as the tin and nail it across the top in the middle.

Building workers use them to carry mortar and concrete. Then, you must nail the handle — a bit longer than the width of the tin — to one top edge, with a supporting piece of wood inside. Filled, this is just the weight that a healthy man can heft up onto his shoulder and then carry, one arm over his head in classic water-carrier pose, from the mixer to the Mastoras; the expert who is actually laying the bricks.

If your chimney smokes, you cut the bottom right out of a feta tin, climb up on the roof, and use it to increase the height of the stack.

If you find that your roof leaks, you get another feta tin, cut out the bottom  and down one edge, beat it flat, and make a patch.

Or you can — after thorough cleaning; old feta smells worse than a dead goat — just use it to keep things in. I keep my underwear in one and am inclined to believe many of my fellow islanders do the same.

Turned upside down a feta tin makes a good stool; one might appropriately sit on one to watch a Karagiozi show. Karagiozi is the Greek equivalent of Mr Punch, but here he’s a shadow-puppet, with one arm absurdly elongated and multi-articulated which he uses to hit his son Kolitiri or his friend Hatziavatis. A few years ago I was privileged to watch a performance by Yiannis Spatharis, doyen of Karagiozi men. Each Karagiozi-thump was marked by a loud clang. How was Yiannis managing this, with no assistant, one hand occupied with Karagiozi and the other with Hatziavati? After the show I asked him. ‘Come and see.’ He took up his position behind the white sheet, and there, between his feet, ready for a well-timed kick, was a feta-tin.


Thursday, 9 January 2014

Works by 'Unknown' Authors

I just came across the following poem by the great nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine. His most famous poem is ‘Die Lorelei’, about a mermaid luring sailors to their deaths. This was so popular that the compilers of poetry anthologies in Germany during the Nazi era just couldn’t leave it out. Their problem was that Heine was Jewish. So they kept it in but pretended it was a folk poem whose author was ‘Unbekannt’: ‘Unknown’. Couldn’t have happened in England, eh? Well, when Oscar Wilde was arrested for homosexual activities his play ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ was a big west end hit. The show went on, but Wilde’s name was removed from all the posters and programmes. Anyway, the poem:


Der Hals ist mir trocken, als hätt ich verschluckt
Die untergehende Sonne.
Herr Wirt! Herr Wirt! Eine Flasche Wein
Aus Eurer besten Tonne!

Es Fließt der holde Rebenshaft
Hinunter in meine Seele,
Und löscht bei dieser Gelegenheit
Den Sonnenbrand der Kehle.

Und noch eine Flasche, Herr Wirt! Ich trank
Die erste in schnöder Zerstreuung,
Ganz ohne Andacht! Mein edler Wein,
Ich bitte dich drob um  Verzeihung.

Heinrich Heine



I’m not much cop with German, but here’s my attempt at a simple prose translation: 


My throat is as dry as if I had swallowed the setting sun. Landlord! Landlord! A bottle of wine from your best cask!

            The friendly juice of the vine flows down into my soul, and on the way it puts out the sunburn in my throat.

            Another bottle, landlord! I drank the first one absent-mindedly, quite without reverence! Noble wine, I beg your forgiveness.



Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Some years ago I ran, here in Alonnisos, a weekly English language news sheet. Because it was done on a computer that was even then an antique — one of the early Apple SE series running Macintosh system 6, which I later upgraded to system 7, writing with Word 5 for Macintosh (an excellent application which did exactly what you told it to do and didn’t, like later versions, officiously insist that you must only do what the average dim American twelve-year-old might be likely to do) the original computer files, when they can be opened at all, come out as a bizarre jumble of control characters and the elegant typefaces and graphics are lost. So when I planned to produce a book containing every issue I had to scout round for original paper copies — many thanks to devoted readers who lent me copies which I still haven’t returned, mainly because some woman ‘tidied’ my desk and shuffled together all the copies from all the lenders — but they’re safe, and any lenders who would like them back should, I’m afraid, come over to my place to identify them — where was I? Oh yes; to make the book I had to scan paper copies.

But the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft agley; the book never materialised. Therefore, from time to time, I shall put a copy of an issue in this blog. Starting today with the very first issue:

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Boxing Clever

Yesterday I talked about the Enigma machine. Until computers came — and breaking the Enigma code was an important step in the development of computers — it was about the best way of encrypting text. But suppose one wanted to send an actual physical object securely? Let us suppose one is an NSA agent working in London, and wants to send something — a folder of photographs of all the people who have been caught dancing on Margaret Thatcher’s grave, a crate of Glen Grant single malt, an inflatable boy scout complete in every anatomical detail — to one’s boss in Washington, and, because of the universal suspicion generated by yourself and your colleagues, you don’t trust the courier not to take a peek. No problem. You put whatever it is in a box, and fit a stout padlock to the box. Then you put the one and only key in your back pocket and send the locked box. When it arrives, the recipient doesn’t ring you up and say ‘Well you prat you didn’t send the key.’ He does something that seems quite lunatic, something that, did we not know it to be out of the question, might suggest NSA agents have a sense of humour: he gets another stout padlock and adds it to the one already there, and puts the key of the new padlock firmly in his back pocket, and sends the doubly locked box back to the original sender. On its arrival back, the original sender gets his own key out of his back pocket, removes the first padlock, and sends the box over to America again. Then, when it arrives the second time, the recipient gets his key out of his back pocket, and removes his padlock, and lo and behold…

Neat, Eh? I only heard of this trick a few years ago. Translated into electronic terms it is, or is supposed to be, how your credit card number is sent securely when you buy things on the internet.  

Monday, 6 January 2014

How an Enigma code machine works

You will have seen photographs, I expect, of an enigma machine. It looks much like a portable typewriter, with keys in the usual (well, German) layout. But where the carriage, roller and paper would be is instead an array of little light-bulbs, each labelled with a letter of the alphabet.

The operator takes his written-out plain text message, and painstakingly types it out letter by letter. Each time he strikes a key, a little bulb lights up. Not of course the ‘Right’ bulb. He writes down the letter-name of the bulb that in fact lights up and proceeds to the next letter, and finishes up with a big jumble of letters, which is the encoded message, which is then sent — usually by radio. Enigma machines are, as it were, reversible, so the chap at the other end, who has an identical machine, types out the jumble, and lo and behold his bulbs light up giving the plain-text original message.

So far, so absurdly simple: a simple alphabetic substitution code, with ‘wrong’ letters standing in for the right ones. The sort of code made up, and easily broken, by a certain kind of schoolboy.

BUT now I come to the all-important wheels: let us consider that non-existent thing, a ‘One-wheel’ Enigma machine. In between the keyboard and the bulbs is a wheel, which is in fact a multi-position rotary switch. Each time a key is struck, the wheel turns round one click, changing all the keyboard-to-light-bulb connections, so that, in effect, one gets a new alphabetic substitution code for every encrypted letter. So even if you keep typing the same letter repeatedly, you get a different bulb lighting each time, at least until the wheel has gone all the way round and is back where it started. Now in fact most Enigma machines had a row of three of these wheels, so arranged that when the first wheel had clicked all the way round to its original position, it moved the second wheel on one click — just like the little number wheels in the little odometer (usually called ‘Milometer’) window on the speedo of your car.

But no problem for the chap at the other end, he just carried on as previously described, and got his plain text back again, provided that both machines started with their wheels set to the same positions. Various ingenious ways were used to tell signallers ‘Achtung! Today’s wheel-positions will be so-and-so’.

Well that’s it really. The Krauts were quite convinced this fiendish code was unbreakable, and that was their undoing: they got lazy and would keep using the same wheel-positions day after day, or making other mistakes. This enabled various brilliant people eventually to break the code, though there always remained the problem (when the square-heads used the machines properly) of working out each day’s wheel-positions in time to decode stuff before the next day, when everything would change again.  

Sunday, 5 January 2014

'I was literally decimated.'

The entry for ‘Literally’ in the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary now allows that the word can be used as a mere intensifier, like ‘Very’. Of course, we have always known that when some idiotic little girl on the BBC says breathlessly ‘I was literally decimated!’ she doesn’t in fact mean that she is a Roman Legion one tenth of whose members have just been put to death by their commanding officer as punishment for some failure: she just means she is upset or annoyed. Thus ‘Decimated’ now means not very much at all, and ‘Literally’ now means ‘Figuratively’; the precise opposite of what it used to mean.

Usage change is inevitable, and is and always has been powered by ignorance. A footballer, a pop singer, a BBC presenter hears a new and impressive-sounding word or expression and proceeds to use it in public with some meaning it has not previously borne. Pretty soon everybody, wanting to be up-to-the-minute, is using it in this new meaning. Anyone who resists such changes is at once accused of wanting to kill the language; to have it inscribed immutably on tablets of stone. We don’t of course; we fight a rearguard action not because we seriously hope to win, but simply to draw attention to what is happening. These changes can in fact enrich the language, but there is a downside: what are those of us who want to use ‘Literally’ or ‘Decimate’ in their older senses to do now? We shall have to use circumlocutions or invent new words. For instance, ‘Anticipate’ has now been lost to those who think it means ‘Expect’ but sounds cleverer. If I try to use ‘Anticipate’ in the older sense I am now likely to be misunderstood, and must say instead ‘Well, I did it myself before you got here,’ or some such.

Thus the language ‘progresses’. English does not have an equivalent of the Academie Francaise; in English, meaning is determined by majority usage, and the educated, particularly the classically educated, are an insignificant minority.

I just want to ask: is this always a good thing? Has something not been lost?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Rhino's End

Jane, who has read the whole Rhino story before, (she won it in a quiz), has said she would like it to have a different ending. I’m afraid I don’t just now feel up to writing a new ending, so here’s the third and final instalment of ‘The Replacement Rhino’. Readers who missed parts one and two will find them at the blog entries for the 9th of December last and yesterday.

STOP PRESS: I now notice that I have accidentally included part two as well below. Part three actually starts at the words 'The little town of Djidjelli'.


The Replacement Rhino, Part the Third
It was with mixed feelings, then, that I saw Frobisher waving his fork cheerily at me across the dining-room when I came down to breakfast the next day. ‘I trust you had a pleasant evening,’ I said. ‘Oh, very jolly, very jolly,’ Frobisher replied, ignoring the frostiness of my tone; ‘You should try some of this,’ pointing his knife (using domestic utensils in this way is another of his vulgar habits) at an unappetising-looking plate: ‘Bloaters, with a side-order’ (I don’t know where he picks up these anachronistic expressions) ‘ of snails and frogs’ legs. Curious thing: Niko was telling me that the Greeks, too, eat snails, and I must say they’re on to something: very tasty, though I suspect the garlic has a lot to do with it.’ I turned away to conceal my rising gorge and signalled to the waiter, to whom I explained loudly and clearly the correct method of making a pot of tea. ‘Si m’sieu, si m’sieu’ he kept repeating. Ignorant fellow didn’t know his own language, and judging from the lukewarm grey liquid he brought me nor did he even understand English.

            ‘I, on the other hand, spent a most tedious evening,’ I told Frobisher. ‘Oh, really?’ he replied lightly. ‘Yes indeed. I was engaged in a tiring and unproductive search for a ship to take us across the Mediterranean,’ and unable any longer to contain my irritation I’m afraid I began to berate him for his frivolous attitude to our entire enterprise. He listened with what I would have taken for a remorseful silence were it not for his infuriating smirk.

            ‘Have you quite finished?’ he asked when I had at last done so. I nodded curtly. ‘Look here Caruthers old sport, don’t fret: it’s all sorted.’ (Another anachronism; even common people don’t yet use this expression.) It transpired that friend Niko had arranged for our passage, with the very ship on which he was an officer, to Djidjelli, of which unlikely-sounding place I had not heard, although Frobisher assured me it was a ‘very atmospheric’ little port on the Algerian coast. Free of charge, to boot: we were to be signed on as temporary crew members, ‘Though naturally, as gentlemen,’ Frobisher added hastily, ‘we shall not be expected to actually do anything. We sail at midday; better μαζεύουμε τα μπογαλάκια.’

            I lowered my gaze to the tablecloth — a mistake — and I fear a maidenly blush appeared on my cheeks. I suppose I am unjust to dear old Frobisher. For all his faults — and they are many — he can be resourceful just when one least expects it. I recovered a gentlemanly demeanour, raised my head and half stood to reach across the table and shake the old cove’s hand, now free of eating utensils. ‘Well done, Frobisher my dear chap! I expected nothing less of you!’ The mortifying fact was that I had expected a great deal less of him.

            The s.s. Cyrenia was a cargo ship, sailing empty to pick up dates or some such, consequently accommodation was limited and Frobisher and I had to share a cabin. Fortunately he spent most of the crossing out of it, (in more senses than one), with his friend Niko. Thus I was free to ponder again exactly where we should expect to find… Rhinoceri? Rhinoceroses…? True, we only needed one of them, but it would be a poor show were we to encounter two or more of the beastly things and not know what to call them. I considered. Ρίνος, nose. Κέρας, horn. Thus ‘Horn-nose’. The plural of Κέρας? I cast my mind back to the far-off days when old ‘Bod’ Bailey used to try to drum Greek noun conjugations into our dense unwilling skulls. Masculine nouns in –ας would surely take the plural –ατα. Yes, that must be it. Rhinocerata, that was what we were after. Didn’t sound quite kosher, but there was no sense in consulting friend Nikos as of course his Greek would be the vulgar demotic variety and not the proper Greek used in the better English schools.

            Matters of grammar having been temporarily settled I went for a brief stroll around the ship and came across, high up near the bridge and with its door hooked open — the temperature was increasing as we approached the dark continent and air-conditioning has still not been invented — our friend Niko’s cabin. He had one to himself as it turned out his job was to operate the recently-invented Marconi apparatus for sending messages without the use of cables, and this (which nevertheless seemed to have a remarkable number of cables) took up much of the space. The desk before it was strewn with reproductions of paintings, and there was a notebook for, I assumed, messages, but a closer look showed what appeared to be the beginnings of a poem; Niko’s was clearly a strange and disturbing character. A row of badly-washed underwear was strung across the cabin, and from this I averted my gaze until Nikos drew my attention to the copper wire from which it hung, explaining that this conducted the messages — one must hope that they were unaffected by passage through the underwear — from the apparatus to an ‘aerial’: a longer wire stretched high up between the two masts, indeed this seems to be the sole function of masts now that ships are propelled by steam rather than wind.

            ‘The messages are encoded in the Morse system,’ Nikos explained. ‘For instance, I might wish to send the message… er…’ ‘Dear Dot, must dash,’ Frobisher exclaimed from the bunk where unnoticed by me he was, as usual, taking his ease. I ignored him. Niko’s explanation of the Marconi apparatus was so absorbing — with much whistling and crackling a message came through, which he duly transcribed, while I was there — that I quite forgot to ask him in which part of Africa one might expect to find — er — rhinocerata. Being Greek he would be bound to have an opinion, however absurd, on the matter, but for myself I was beginning to have doubts as to whether we were even headed for the appropriate continent.


    || —

The little town of Djidjelli was indeed atmospheric, almost asphyxiatingly so, and I found the heat, noise, confusion and above all smell rather distressing. Needless to say Frobisher seemed quite at home and unerringly led the way to what he insisted was the ‘best’ hotel. I hope never to see the worst.

            Once we were ensconced in a malodorous room darkened against the heat, I turned to Frobisher who seemed quite relaxed, reclining on what he called a ‘charpoy.’ ‘Look here,’ I began; ‘I have to confess I’m not entirely sure where we should begin looking for one of these — er — horned creatures; we have to consider our next move.’ Frobisher snorted with unconcern, and it was while I was endeavouring to apprise him of the gravity of our situation that the door burst open to admit a very dark brown young boy of, I have to say, though of course I have no interest in such matters, singular beauty. He looked from one to the other of us but said nothing, and I began to fear that the management, mistaking our intentions, had sent him to us for some unnatural entertainment — old Dickie Burton used to tell of such goings-on in the orient and his writings on the subject have survived as dear Isabel destroyed only what she understood. My impression seemed confirmed when he fumbled inside an exiguous loincloth that revealed more than it concealed. I was much relieved when he extracted the reassuring yellow envelope of the International Telegraphic Service. Frobisher reached out, grabbed it and incontinently tore it open — the envelope I mean. He glanced only briefly at the telegram before tossing it over to me.




There is little to add. We returned to civilization as quickly as foreign conditions would allow, reaching Aunt Bertha’s Knightsbridge apartment three days later just in time for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

            The wooden shithouse can be seen to this day in the goods depôt at Dover Priory, where it has found a new and happier use since Dover College started admitting girls.

            The Metropolitan Police routinely ignore reports of a rhinoceros seen forlornly wandering the remoter parts of Regent’s Park.