Friday, 28 February 2014

Enough Angels Already!

Just one last thing about them for now. I forgot yesterday to give you a picture of an angel. As spiritual beings, when angels choose to assume material form they do so in various ways, to suit the circumstances and the person who will see them. Here is the Greek artist Yannis Tsarouchis's picture of an angel scattering roses over the city of Athens:

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Knowledge of Angels

That’s actually the title of a novel I hope soon to read.

There used to be a chap here in this village who claimed to see and converse with angels. A friend of mine said of him ‘I’ve no doubt he does; what I don’t understand is why the angels are wasting their time with him.’

Not long ago, at Nelson Mandela’s Funeral, there was a man who made lots of rather simple gestures during the speeches. He was supposed to be doing sign-language for the benefit of those who couldn’t hear, but you didn’t have to know a lot about sign-language to see that this was bullshit. Later, the chap claimed that he had been distracted by seeing angels about the place; he went on to admit he must have been suffering a ‘psychotic episode’. Fair enough; these days anyone who claims to see angels is, very nearly by definition, psychotic.

But just a minute — if indeed there are such things as angels, where more likely for them to appear than at the funeral of that great man? Is it possible that they were indeed there, and this chap was privileged to see them, and it was only the crass insensitivity of the assembled great and good that prevented them too from seeing them?

Oh come on. There aren’t any angels to see.

But wait another minute — what about all those people, not just in South Africa, but also in the most respectable suburbs of England, who go to church on Sundays and perhaps say their prayers at night, and who sing, or pray, about angels? Are they all psychotic too? or hypocritical liars? Oh, but perhaps the angels about which the respectable suburban church-goers pray and sing are ‘Metaphorical’ or ‘Symbolic’. More bullshit. The average suburban church-goer wouldn’t recognize a metaphor or a symbol if it got up and bit him (or more likely her; and incidentally it’s something metaphors and symbols have a way of doing).

So — are there angels? If you say ‘Yes’, then you are a loony. If you say ‘No’ then you’re a hypocrite and a liar.

Personally, I’m on the side of the angels.


Today, by the way, is the
anniversary of the
Reichstag fire.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Red Lip.

Athens News, an English language weekly, used to have a column on Greek language and literature, written by a man called I think Richard Church, who had written a good book called 'Learn Greek in 25 Years'. For all I know the column is still running and still written by the same chap, but it was good, and so experience suggests it's probably been abolished by now.

Anyway, a long time ago he put in his column an English translation of a little Greek folk poem. It was a bad translation, so I made a good one (What's the point of having a blog if you can't use it to say things like that?) and sent it to him. Gratifyingly he agreed my version was better, and  put it in the paper a week or two later. The original, unusually for Greek popular poetry, doesn't rhyme; I used rhyme to compensate for my inability to reproduce the beautiful cadences of the Greek:


The Red Lip

I kissed a red lip, and my own was dyed,
I wiped my lip, the handkerchief was red,
I washed it, and the river’s waters bled,
and dyed the shore, and stained the deep-sea tide;
the eagle came to drink; his wings took fire,
and red the half-sun, and the moon entire.

Anonymous, C18th or earlier
English version © Simon Darragh


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Nikos Kavvadias at work

Looking back over readership for the past two weeks or so, and assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that people look at the blog again when something they liked was on it during the previous couple of days, it seems to me you people out there rather like Nikos Kavvadias. So here today is the cover of my translation of his autobiographical novel Βάρδια. The photograph shows him doing what it would be incorrect to call his 'Day Job' of  ship's wireless operator. For one thing, short wave radio works better at night, and for another he made no separation between his two vocations of poet and sailor. The picture was given to me by Kavvadias's niece.

Looking at the picture again, I can see that it was fairly obviously posed, and Nikos is doing what the photographer, who evidently knew little about wireless operation, told him to do. Nikos's left hand is on a control - probably fine tuning or RF gain - of a powerful receiver. His right hand is on a Morse key, presumably connected to the transmitter one can see behind his head. A wireless operator, even or especially an experienced one like Kavvadias, would not try to send and receive at the same time.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Can you have a 'nice' poem about a 'nasty' thing?

It seems that poetry, but not too much blather ‘about’ poetry, seems to hit the spot with at least some of you.

One of my favourite English language poets of the twentieth century is William Empson. Who? Well, he’s far better known as a literary critic; no university lecturer in English Literature would dare to be caught without a copy of his most famous book ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ on his shelves. Which is ironic, since Cambridge University threw him out when he was caught in possession of condoms. Nowadays one would be more likely to be thrown out for not being in possession of condoms.

But to his neglected poetry: although reassuringly traditional in form, it is often uncompromisingly ‘intellectual’ in content, and not always about ‘nice’ things. (My one blog commentator unashamedly admits to preferring poems (and ballets, and pieces of music) that are ‘nice’)

Here — and I think if you click on it you can increase the size to make it easier to read — is his poem ‘Aubade’. An Aubade is a ‘Morning Song’, and this one is about that not-very-nice thing an earthquake:

Sunday, 23 February 2014

I don't know much about poetry but I know what I like

Since with one exception my readers maintain a silence worthy of a class of sullen fourth-year juniors, I have to be a detective to work out what might please them. Looking back over the past week, I see that readership was highest on the 19th of February and lowest on the 22nd. Reasoning that this might be related to what I had written about on the days before (‘Oh, that was interesting; I’ll look again tomorrow’, or ‘Oh, that was tedious, I won’t bother tomorrow’,) I find that on the 18th I wrote about the Greek poet Nikos Kavvadias, and on the 21st about unusual Greek idioms. I come to the paradoxical conclusion that you like to read about Greek poets but have little interest in the oddities of the Greek language.

Paradoxical? Yes, because as Mallarmé said to Debussy ‘Poetry is made of words, not ideas.’ Sure, words have meanings. Most of them, and usually, although just now News Media and TV ‘Personalities’ are doing their best to render certain words —‘Crisis’ and ‘Literally’ for example —Meaningless, (incidentally ‘Personality’ as just used is a word that has reversed its meaning, TV ‘Personalities’ having as little personality as possible) er — where was I? Oh yes, poetry being made of words, not ideas, but on the other hand words very often having meanings and being commonly used to express ideas.

But in poetry the word’s meaning — in any case a slippery term — is not usually the most important of its properties. Even if we take the the clearest and most straighforward poem, which says what it means and means what it says — something by, say, Eleanor Farjeon, or the Byron of ‘Don Juan’ — could we take a dictionary of synonyms and change lots of the words into others that meant ‘The same’? Would the result be just as good a poem? Only someone who can’t see the point of poetry at all would say ‘Yes’ to that.

If you say to a poet ‘But what does your poem mean?’ he is quite likely to explode with rage and chase you away. If he is more mild-mannered and Clark Kentish he might shrug and say ‘Search me, guv.’ At the very least he will frown, think hard, and say ‘Well, perhaps…’ or ‘I suppose…’ He will never (Unless he is merely a versifier and not a poet) say ‘Oh, it means…’ and come out with something perfectly straightforward. That would imply that he never needed to write a poem at all; he could have just said what he meant, straight off.

What I’m trying to get at is that poets are the pioneers of language — they are using language to say things that could not be said in other ways; in ‘normal’ language. If you want a metaphor for this, you might think of a clearing in the forest. Within the clearing people go about saying things like ‘Good Morning, Percy’ or ‘A pound of butter please’ or ‘What time does Doctor Strabismus’s lecture on Epistemology start?’ and are generally understood. Meanwhile the pioneers are hacking away at the edges of the language-clearing, increasing its size and finding strange new growths; coming home and talking a bit oddly. Some of them stray too far into the forest and if they come back at all we have difficulty understanding what they’re talking about, though it may in time seem very interesting.

So if one is really interested in poetry, one is interested in language’s oddities.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Cutting Edge of Modern Science


Researchers at a University in Hungary, using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery, have come to the astonishing conclusion that when spoken to in warm, friendly tones dogs are pleased. Furthermore, when spoken to in cross tones they are distressed. This new discovery will be of great interest to dog-lovers everywhere; not having access to MRI scanners and suchlike it seems unlikely many of them will already know this.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Greek as She is Spoke

Readership has gone down again. Perhaps you’re fed up with Nikos Kavvadias, so unless there are vociferous demands to continue I shall spare you the rest of that piece and try something else. (Why won’t you tell me what you’d like on the blog?)

What follows is intended primarily for Anglophones unfamiliar with Greek ways, so rather than use ‘proper’ Greek I shall transliterate Greek words into approximate  phonetic equivalents in Roman characters. Thus I shall write, say, ‘Thalassa’ rather than Θάλασσα.

Yesterday here in Greece was Tsiknopempti, which translates (I kid you not) as ‘Thursday of the aroma of roasting meat.’ It’s all to do with Easter, Carnival, Lent etc.; I opted out and stayed at home to practice the piano and dine on lentil rissoles with red cabbage.

Every language has strange idiomatic expressions, and we have to take a step back to see the strangeness of the ones in our own languages. The vantage point of a non-native speaker helps. I am English (well, half Irish) but have spent half my life in Greece, so have the (dis)advantage of being able to see the strangeness of both English and Greek idioms. For instance, when it rains heavily in Greece (something it has not done in this island for months and we are worried about the summer water supply) we say it rains ‘Kareklopodara’; ‘Chair legs.’ Which is a whole lot more logical than the English ‘Cats and Dogs’ that so amuses my Greek friends. On the other hand, yesterday morning as I passed through the village square Alekos, grandfather of my fellow piano pupil Anastasia, assuming that because I speak Greek I must know the oddest expressions, said ‘Pou to evales?’; literally ‘Where have you been putting it?’ I was of course tempted to make an obscene reply, but I just told him I was going for a stroll with the dog, because he meant something like ‘What are you up to?’ ‘Up to’. That’s surely pretty strange. So is ‘Turn up’, perhaps deriving from card playing, as in ‘When Dimitris turned up, I told him…’ In Greek you could say ‘Otan eskase miti O Dimitris, tou eipa…’; literally ‘When Dimitri’s nose exploded, I told him…’

It gets better, or worse. ‘Tha sou figi o kolos’; ‘Your arse will depart from you’, which actually means ‘You will be astonished’. That is to say, whatever it is ‘Tha sou allaxei to phota,’ ‘It will change your lights’.

But one that may explain a lot is ‘Stin ora mou’ which translates literally as ‘In my own time’ but is in fact the idiomatic expression for its opposite, namely ‘At the correct appointed time’. It has been said that in Greece the letters ‘GMT’ stand for ‘Greek Maybe Time’. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Kavvadias Kontinued

Today, just the next page of that piece on Nikos Kavvadias. Jane has suggested to me that for the benefit of non Greek-speaking readers I should give some guide to the pronunciation of the name 'Kavvadias'. However, forty years experience of talking about Greece, Greek, and Greeks have taught me that if you stand in front of an English person and enunciate a Greek word clearly and ask him to repeat it, he will still insist on pronouncing it as he did before you spoke to him.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Snowden, Copernicus, and Kavvadias.

Edward Snowden has just been made Rector of Glasgow University. A few students objected: not because they thought him a bad choice in other respects, but because they thought it might be difficult for him to come to Glasgow given that the American government wants to get its far-from-clean hands on him. The news was on BBC, DW, and RFI. VOA was oddly silent.
Today is the birthday of Nicholas Copernicus, as he's usually called because his Polish name is a little difficult for non-Poles. Copernicus was not the first to suggest a heliocentric planetary system, but he showed how it would work out neatly and eliminate the bizarre epicycles and retrograde planetary motion of previous ideas.
And here's the next page of that thing on Kavvadias. Just one page today as the blog system, which says I can put two or more pictures in at once, in fact messes it up. More to come.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

More about Nikos

Readership has increased lately. I think it might be something to do with my mentioning Nikos Kavvadias. So, Niko, mon semblable, mon frere, I propose to say more about you over the next few days.
In 1996 the London Magazine did a special Greek double issue and for it I wrote a paper on Kavvadias. Here, scanned from the magazine, are the first two pages; more later. Aplogies for the scribbled annotations: I later revised the piece for a talk to be given at the University of Thessaloniki. That talk was never given, because at the last minute I was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Eleusina. I have often wondered if perhaps someone at the University...


Monday, 17 February 2014

Google’s Garbled Greek



As anyone who can write a grammatical sentence will know, Google, like Microsoft, is barely literate in English. In other languages it gets incoherent — try the ‘Translate this page’ thingy up at the top of many Google pages; I once, just for fun, tried it on a poem by Rilke — and in other alphabets, such as Greek, it can’t even manage basic articulacy.

In yesterday’s blog post about Nikos Kavvadias, then, the few Greek words I had used were turned into a jumble of Roman and mathematical characters in a variety of typefaces. So here — I hope; I shall take special care but it might happen again — are the Greek words I used, in the order in which I used them, with an approximate English transliteration and a translation or explanation.


Watch, in the sense of shipboard vigil
Καïμός της Ρομιοσύνης
Kaimos tis Romiosynis
The anguish of being Greek
Port (in all the same senses as in English)
Cape (headland) or cable
(Female) Mulatto; also shot glass
Ship’s compass
Place selling ‘fast food’
Literally a sheet of metal, but the ship in nautical slang
Variety of grape


If anyone is still with me I should say I am not certain that I have got the Greek spelling of the last word correct; it would take too long to find its occurrence in the original. But at least this time the Greek letters have come out right. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Nikos Kavvadias

Readership has been going down lately, but if people won't tell me what they want to see on the blog it's hard to know how to please them. However, one person (thank you Jane) did write in to say that yesterday's post - in which I talked of Melanie's 'Brand New Key' and Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier' - might as well have been in Greek. I thought therefore of writing today's post in Greek, but instead will do the next best thing - here is the text of a talk I gave at the University of East Anglia on translating the work of the Greek sailor/poet Nikos Kavvadias:
Nikos Kavvadias

I won’t talk for long because I’d like to leave plenty of time for questions — I’ll just read what I’ve got written down here and then I hope people will ask lots of questions, and if I can’t provide all the answers so much the better.

When Lela rang me up in Greece some months ago to say she'd like me to be here today and to talk about Nikos Kavvadias I think I suggested I might talk about the special difficulties of putting his work into English. Now that it comes to the point I feel tempted to say ‘Difficulties? What difficulties?’ and not just because then we can all get back to the bar where, as everybody knows, all serious conference talk takes place.

The fact is that of all the Greek writers I’ve read, I found Kavvadias the most immediately sympathetic and understandable; I dashed home to start translating him the very day I first picked up one of his three volumes of poetry — appropriately enough from a shelf in a radio station where I was working — and carried on doing so for a good year before it occurred to me, with the encouragement of Alan Ross of London Magazine, that there might be people in England who would be interested in his work and life. His interest led to an article about Kavvadias for a special Greek issue of London Magazine, and later to a selection of the poems, done into English, which he published under the title Wireless Operator. Now we're doing Bavrdia, the novel about shipboard life, which we're calling ‘First Dog’, for reasons I can explain if anyone wants to know.

Now certainly in translating Kavvadias I found there were lots of words  I didn’t understand, but any translator will tell you that the words are the easy bit. I made lists of the words I couldn’t find in even the most enormous dictionaries, and it was only when I showed these words to Greek friends and they asked me where I found them that it occurred to me I might be doing anything difficult. ‘In the poems of Nikos Kavvadias,’ I said; ‘I’m translating him.’ ‘FFFF!’ They said — that’s a special noise we usually associate in England with plumbers surveying one’s kitchen — ‘Difficult!’ ‘Oh? Why?’ ‘Well…the sea…and…and…’ And if I persisted there would come that pitying smile and the standard remark ‘You are not Greek; you cannot understand.’ The old Kai>movß thß Romaiosuvnhß argument, or rather non-argument, to which it's best to respond with no more than a grave nod and a look of deep sympathy — one must never forget that the Greeks have a monopoly on suffering. 

Anyway yes I jolly well can understand, and so, I think, could most English people. The earliest sea-going vessel in existence is one that was dug up recently from under a hotel in my home town of Dover, and I believe the inhabitants of the  British Isles have been going to sea for at least as long as the Greeks if not longer, though I admit the Greeks were probably already writing poetry about it when the Brits were still communicating in grunts and painting their faces blue.

I took to carrying around with me the list of words I didn’t know and couldn’t find in dictionaries. In Greece I’d ask taverna waiters — they all seem to have worked on the ships at one time or another, though sadly in these days of huge container ships with tiny crews and quick turn-arounds in port the merchant sailor, whether British or Greek, is a dying breed. The list also gave me an excuse to hang round some dubious bars and cafés in Piraeus and call it ‘research’. In England I'd  approach anyone I thought might be Greek — I remember embarrassing my English girlfriend in of all places a canal-side pub somewhere near Milton Keynes — about as far away from the sea as one can get in England — one summer  lunch-time by going up to a group of total strangers and whipping out my list just because I'd heard them talking Greek. As far as I remember they didn’t know a single word on the list, but they did know who Kavvadias was, and from my point of view I’d gained an introduction to the Greek community of Milton Keynes, albeit my friend’s point of view was that one just doesn't do that sort of thing. Incidentally that’s another thing about Kavvadias — it’s rare to find a Greek, even one who never reads poetry, who doesn’t know who he was.

Many of the words on my list turned out to be technical terms or sailor’s slang. People I would not have suspected of literary habits turned out to know Kavvadias’s poems and would advise me that as an Englishman I couldn’t possibly understand him — some of them would also tell me in confidential tones that Kavvadias was born in the area of Piraeus known as Kokkinia, that he was homosexual — poustis was the word they usually used —  and various other items of privileged and totally false information — Kavvadias is the sort of person around whom myths grow —  but at least they’d tell me the meanings of the words when they knew them, and the list got shorter.

Now nautical words are all right so long as they have only the one meaning — to take English examples, one is safe enough with, say, ‘Starboard’. It means the right-hand side when one’s on board facing the pointy end, and has no non-nautical meaning. But one could get into trouble and make hilarious mistakes with, say, ‘Stern’, which might be an adjective meaning strict or a noun meaning the blunt end of the ship. Or how about ‘Port’? It might mean harbour, or the other side of the ship, or fortified red wine. In a novel one might guess from the context, but not always in a poem. Fortunately in that particular case Greek sailors use the word Povrto, which also carries all three meanings, and I was able to rely on that in one poem, but one isn’t often that lucky. Greek is not as full of ambiguities as English — at least, not straightforward lexical ambiguities — but nautical language turned out to be an exception. Kavboß, for instance, can mean either promontory or hawser, and since both are likely in a nautical context one can’t always be sure which is intended — it occurs in one of the poems and I still don’t know if I made the right choice. In the first verse of another poem the bosun is said to have half a bottle of gin and two migavde". Now the usual meaning of migavde" is ‘mulattos’ or ‘half-breeds’, but there’s a slang meaning of small glasses for drinking spirits. That seemed more likely in this context, but then in the last verse the bosun, who has meanwhile fallen asleep, suddenly wakes up and curses both his gin bottle and one of the migavde", who — or which — has started to cry. Difficult.

Then there are the slang nautical terms. One might, especially if one had a special interest, know that the Greek word for a ship’s compass is Puxivda, but one has to talk to Greek sailors to find out that they almost never call it a Puxivda, they call it a Mpouvsoula", and that’s not even — strictly — a Greek word, though there one’s on difficult ground — I mean, is fastfountavdiko a Greek word? Worse still are words that almost everyone would say have one meaning and one only, but turn out to have another slang meaning used only by Greek sailors. Lamarivna, for instance, is a common enough word, and every Greek speaker knows it means a piece of sheet metal, but for Kavvadias and all other Greek sailors it can also mean the ship itself.

Furthermore, Kavvadias’s family came from Kephallonia, so that — especially in Bavrdia, his autobiographical novel, full of reminiscences of village life, there are many words known only in that island. For these I would have to hope to meet people from Kephallonia — and I did, including a very nice girl — but even then they often didn’t know the word in question because they were from the wrong village, where they called whatever it was something else. One word — bostilivdi — stayed on my list for two years and was the last to go: no-one, sailor, Kephallonian, Kephallonian sailor, whatever, knew it. Finally one day I was walking through the old city in Rhodes and I came across something called the Rhodes branch of the National Library of Greece. This was about the size of the tiny branch libraries we used to have in English villages before our new leaders sold them to fund their literacy campaign, but I asked to have a look around and found a dictionary that took up over a metre of shelf-space. Bostilivdi turned out — rather unexcitingly, and I’d never have guessed it from the context — to be a variety of grape-vine. I went back to the Translators’ house at the other end of town — incidentally I recommend it to anyone looking for somewhere nice to do their work; it’s in the old British Admiralty building so just right for working on the writings of a sailor — wrote it into my typescript and took the ferry home.

And that’s it really. And all I’ve talked about is a few trivial lexical problems. I’ve told you nothing about Kavvadias’s life and work: there’s really no need to — though of course I’ll be happy to answer any questions if I can —  because, as I said, Kavvadias is — at any rate for an English reader — the most straightforward Greek writer one could wish for. His poems, short stories, and one novel are all autobiographical and speak very clearly for themselves. And if you don’t read Greek, you can read my translations. They weren’t at all difficult to do, just enormous fun, and I met all sorts of people I might otherwise have missed.

Simon Darragh.



Saturday, 15 February 2014

Music and Logic.

If logic is still taught in Universities; if it has not been ousted by such things as ‘Meeja Studies’, then no doubt its lecturers are still remarking on the fact (as they used to believe it to be) that whereas a double negative makes a positive[1], a double positive doesn’t make a negative. To which the best riposte is ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Melanie (not Melanie Klein, the other one) says this (actually she uses a triple positive, but only because the scansion demands it) just after the heart-breaking line ‘Some people say I’ve done all right (for a girl)’ in the only song for which she is remembered, ‘Brand New Key’. (The roller-skate song.)

The Germans even have a special word — again usually repeated — for ‘Yes’ meaning ‘Not really’. They say ‘Tja, tja’. The Marschallin says it  in reply to Faninal’s banal remark about young people, just before Sophie and Octavian’s final Mozartian duet at the end of Richard Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’.

No apologies for discussing ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and ‘Brand New Key’ in the same post. Both are masterpieces. As Duke Ellington said ‘There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music’.

[1] Except in Modern Greek popular speech, where the second negative is a mere intensifier. But Modern Greek is not a good language in which to discuss logic.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Giraffes, Kydonia, Alonia.

Copenhagen Zoo recently shot and killed a healthy young male giraffe. Zoo staff have been surprised by the angry public reaction. Try this little experiment: find, in ‘Word’ form, any of the many pieces about this and use the ‘Replace’ function to turn throughout the word ‘Giraffe’ into the word ‘Jew’. Now read it again.

Further news about Madame Quince’s forthcoming book. It seems the publisher won’t countenance ‘The Runcible Spoon’ for the title, but has decreed, with dazzling originality, that it be ‘Quinces’. Fair enough, it ‘Does what it says on the box’ as they say. I have had the temerity to suggest that ‘The Quince’ does the same, but with a classier, more definitive ring. Madame Quince is in fact Jane McMorland Hunter, who also edits poetry anthologies, and her co-author is Sue Dunster. The publisher is Prospect Books and it should be out in the Autumn.

Enough about quinces already. Here, I hope, is the missing second page of issue 3 of the Aloni:

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Aloni

I put the first two issues of 'The Aloni' on this blog some time ago. As no-one complained I assumed you were all delighted to read them - again in some cases - so now here is the third.
By the way, the people who were kind enough to lend me their collections of original Alonia can rest assured that their copies are safe - I put each person's collection in separate labelled folders for return after scanning. Unfortunately someone took it upon herself to 'tidy' my desk, and although all copies are safe and have been put away where no-one can 'tidy' them, they are no longer in separate folders labelled with the owners' names, which is why I haven't been able to return them.

Unfortunately I find that the stupid blog application, in spite of its saying that I may put in two pictures, will not allow me (as it did for page one) to blow up page two to a readable size. I will give you page two later. 


Wednesday, 12 February 2014


Marmalade is so called because a sixteenth century King of France had a much-loved little daughter called Marie. Marie fell ill and started to waste away, having no appetite. The Court Cook was sent for and instructed to prepare a new delicacy to tempt her. He took bitter oranges, added an equal quantity of sugar, and boiled them together, muttering the while ‘Marie est malade, Marie est malade.’

The above is of course total nonsense; an example of that pleasantly misleading anecdotal genre the folk etymology. Madame Quince has explained to me, citing several authorities, that the word comes from the Portuguese. Briefly, the earliest marmalade was made from quinces; ‘Marmela’ in Portuguese. Those needing more detail on this important matter will be looking forward to Madame Quince’s book on — er — Quinces, title and publishing date yet to be announced.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The blog has become a touch frivolous lately. Time to get a little more serious, but only a little.

Most of you will have read at least one book by John Fowles — The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the Magus —. There is also a collection of essays, called ‘Wormholes’, published in 1999, when I reviewed it for the London Magazine. At that time, under the editorship of Alan Ross — a twentieth century Doctor Johnson — the London Magazine was the sanest and most reliable of literary and artistic periodicals. If Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin wrote a new poem, that was where it first appeared; if Brian Sewell wanted to fulminate about Mark Rothko, or Prince Charles about modern architecture, they did so in the London Magazine. So I felt honoured that Alan would often print my stuff there. Anyway, here’s what I said then about Fowles’s book of essays. And by the way, the faulty possessives in the piece as it appeared are neither mine nor Alan’s, but were put in by one of those illiterates known as ‘copy editors’.

Hope you can read it. I think if you click on the page-images you can make them bigger.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Poshly hevelled.

A correspondent — Madame Quince, in fact — suggests ‘Hevelled’ or perhaps ‘Shevelled’ as a pleasing back-formation: if one can be ‘Dishevelled’ then one can presumably be ‘Hevelled’. She imagines going to a posh do hevelled in her best clothes.

It seems that the derivation of ‘Posh’ from the acronym ‘Port Out, Starboard Home,’ chalked on the luggage of the more privileged ship passengers from England to India and back, to ensure cabins out of the hot sun in colonial days, is also spurious, with little evidence to support it. It is an example of ‘Folk Etymology’; an ingenious but false explanation like that for ‘Marmalade’.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A Runcible Spoon

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon.

Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’.


A friend of mine has just completed a book about quinces. (Κυδώνια in Greek.) There will of course be recipes, but if it’s anything like her other books there will be history, and pictures, and tales of odd things one can do with them. (The ones in this island are about the size, weight, and hardness of hand grenades, so would make good missiles.) She has been wondering about a title so I suggested ‘The Runcible Spoon’. She doesn’t think the publisher will wear it, but I hope she tries him or her: publishers are interested in money, in fact it’s become difficult to find one who is interested in anything else, and a quirky title can mean increased sales.

But how many people, without looking it up, can tell you what a ‘runcible’ spoon might be? (Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t recognize it, but Microsoft Word has the vocabulary of an overweight American teenager). Well obviously a runcible spoon is one that can be runced. Not one you runce with; that would be a runcing spoon. A spoon that can be runced, just as edible things are those that can be — er — edded. (That does work; it’s just you have to go through Latin. Purists who object to Latinate words in English can say ‘Eatable’. Percy Grainger, the composer of ‘Easy listening’, vaguely classical-sounding stuff carried his objection to Latinate words so far as to insist on ‘farness’ rather than ‘distance’. But he was a nasty man: his greatest crimes of course were to write ‘Elizabethan Serenade’ and ‘An English Country Garden’ but he was also a sadist who liked to beat his wife. Not just spank her, which might have been fun for both of them, but actually beat her up. But I digress…)

In fact ‘Runcible’ is not one of those adjectives formed from verbs. (Gerunds? Gerundives?) Runcible is, according to one authority, an alloy used in Victorian times for making cheap cutlery.

I can’t offhand think of other words that, misleadingly ending in ‘Ible’ or ‘Able’ look as if they should be adjectival but are in fact substantive. But in general mistaken back-formations, as in ‘Runce’ from ‘Runcible’, can often be fun. One can be ‘Overwhelmed’, but until recently ‘Underwhelmed’ (as in ‘The literary quality of Dan Brown’s books is quite underwhelming’) was a joke. It is becoming more and more common and has probably made it into the OED by now, but anyone wanting to learn good English is advised to avoid recent editions of the OED like the plague, or the BBC.

How about ‘Couth’, from ‘Uncouth’? Can one have a Couth Youth as one has Uncouth ones? One rarely hears the word, if it is one, and not just because there are more uncouth than couth youths.

I don’t know if people like these linguistic oddities. I do, and it’s my blog.   

Friday, 7 February 2014

Because we are in Greece

Today we had no mains electricity here in the village. A passer-by — another foreigner of course — asked me if I knew why. ‘Yes,’ I said: ‘It’s because we are in Greece.’

A man dies and because he has led a very sinful life he is sent to hell. At the gates he is asked his nationality. ‘Well, my father was German and my mother Greek.’ ‘Ah. In that case you have a choice: the Greek hell or the German one.’ ‘Oh. May I see the German hell?’ ‘Certainly; this way please.’ In the German hell the condemned are standing up to their chins in — er — raw sewage, and every few minutes the devil, a bevy of giggling girls beside him, whizzes by in a speedboat, delighting in making waves that wash the sewage into the mouths of the condemned. ‘Right. Thank you. Now may I see the Greek hell?’ ‘Yes; this way’: in the Greek hell the condemned are standing up to their chins in the same stuff, and every few minutes the devil… well you get the picture. ‘Now,’ says the under-devil, ‘Make your choice.’ ‘Oh, please, may I have the Greek hell?’ ‘Yes, all right, but why? They’re both exactly the same.’ ‘But, you see, in the Greek hell there will be days when the drains block and we shall only be up to our knees in sewage, other days when the devil doesn’t feel like coming to work, and others when they forget to put any petrol in the speedboat, and …’

Thursday, 6 February 2014


A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Trito Programma — the ‘Serious Music’ Greek State Radio station — has returned, furthermore minus the smartarses who tried to impress us with their erudition instead of just announcing the work and putting on the record. Unfortunately, after sporadic listening, I’ve found that Trito Programma has been vivaldified. That is to say, it plays mostly shortish, lightish stuff. The same happened to Classic FM, whose populist approach (it was paid for by advertising, which always goes for what is incorrectly called the ‘Lowest Common Denominator’ (they mean Highest Common Factor)) reduced the content to what the Americans aptly call ‘Elevator Music’. Now an English friend tells me that the same has happened to the BBC’s Radio Three, and so, ironically, Classic FM has got more serious to fill the gap in the market.

So what is wrong with Vivaldi? Well nothing really: I was as pleased as anyone when, fifty years ago, I Musici’s fine recording of the Four Seasons came out and everybody started listening to this hitherto obscure composer. I like Vivaldi, in small doses. But an unrelieved auditory diet of Vivaldi and similar music is like a gallery of nothing but Renoir. A very fine painter, but one also wants something a bit meatier. (Bad choice of metaphor; some of Renoir’s women are very meaty, but it’s chicken filet rather than beefsteak.)

I once offended some friends who put on Vivaldi as ‘background music’ (aargh!) over dinner by saying ‘Ah, Vivaldi; music for people who don’t really like music.’ Later one of them suggested that I didn’t like Vivaldi because his music is happy, and I insisted on being gloomy. Yes, his music is happy, as what man’s wouldn’t be if he landed the job of resident music teacher in a girls’ boarding school. But too much of it is like being put on hold when ’phoning, or eating a whole packet of chocolate digestive biscuits.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Winter Olympics

New laws have been passed to further curtail freedom of expression as the authorities want foreign visitors to the Winter Olympics to have the impression that all is sweetness and light over there. Perhaps some people will think that 'Politics' should be 'Kept out of Sport'. Perhaps they should think a little more carefully.

Das war ein Witz, Ha-Ha!

This morning on Deutsche Welle there was a programme about German comedians. It was a very short programme.

No really, I kid you not, the above is quite true, and it reminded me that a week or two ago I told you my favourite Russian/Yiddish joke. Yiddish is closely related to German of course, the word ‘Yiddish’ coming from German ‘Jüdisch Deutsch’; ‘Jewish German’. But that’s just an aside of slightly arcane knowledge of the sort in which I delight; today I want to tell you my favourite (non-Yiddish) Russian Joke, first told me by a Russian professor of translation at a conference in Sheffield. (That too is beside the point; I’ve only just got out of bed and my thoughts are scattered.) So here’s the story, and please, stop reading at once if you recognize it; there are few things more embarrassing than telling a joke and realizing half-way through that your audience has heard it before:

It is a winter’s evening and the peasants are returning from the fields. It is so cold that the birds are freezing in mid-flight and dropping from the sky. One lands right at a peasant’s feet. ‘Oh, the poor thing’ he thinks and, picking it up, looks round wondering where to put it for warmth. Just then a cow, returning to the byre for the evening milking, lifts its tail and drops a big steaming cow-pat. ‘Just the thing!’ thinks the peasant, plops the bird down in it and goes on his way, pleased to have done a fellow-creature a good turn.

The bird, rejoicing in its new warm environment, starts to chirrup and wriggle about, thus attracting the attention of another passing peasant who plucks it up, wrings its neck, and takes it home to cook for dinner.

This story has three morals:

1)      He who drops you in the shit is not necessarily your enemy.

2)      He who gets you out of the shit is not necessarily your friend.

3)      When in the shit, don’t make a song and dance about it.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014


You probably recognize the three men above, but just in case: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. On this day in 1945, in Yalta, they sat together to have their picture taken, before getting back to the business of carving up Europe between them, thus deciding - without bothering to ask them - the future, for good or ill, (mostly the latter), of millions. Hitler had wanted to do much the same, but he had been disposed of. The three men in the picture would all have described themselves as democrats.

Monday, 3 February 2014

'Adult' Content.

Some readers may be pleased. or amused, to see that I have removed the 'Adult Content Warning' from the blog. You see, when I was first asked if I wanted this, I said 'Yes' because I imagined it would tell people this blog was for grown-up people who wanted to read something I hoped might interest them; people who would be unlikely to want to look, like schoolboys, at pictures of tits and bums. Later I realized that, as with so many words, 'Adult' is now used by the majority to mean what was once its opposite. So just for that:

What went wrong?

I was born in 1944. I was due on D-day but wisely decided to stay inside until a week later.

We were still at war with Germany but by then it was clear our side was going to win. That year the great Education Act was passed; free education for all. I duly went to Harcourt County Primary near Folkestone; a new glass-and-concrete but nevertheless elegant single-storey building. Thinking I couldn’t read yet they marked the pegs for our coats with pictures of animals; I chose a crab which probably says something about me. The teachers, mostly women, were warm and kind and tried to teach me to cut out a Christmas-tree shape from dark green sticky paper; I hid the fragments of my failure under the desk when she came round to see how we were getting on; not from fear of her wrath: what I feared was the ridicule of the other children, all so much more street-wise (as we would say now) than me, and mocking of my dreamy other-worldliness. I felt overwhelmed, as we walked back from school each afternoon, by these noisy giggling and chattering groups that never included me. But I loved it all; we were each given a little bottle of milk at mid-morning break, and during my first term a big climbing-frame was installed in the playground, just for us. ‘Gym’ involved such things as setting a hoop rolling and then turning a somersault through it; I was astonished when several other children (not me) managed this feat. None but a few of the bigger boys who hung around the furthest corner of the playground and were best avoided ever complained about school; we all loved it.

And a few years later the National Health Service started: free health care ‘From the cradle to the grave’ for everyone. I queued with my mother every week at a little office in the recreation ground, for two flat bottles: one of sticky not-very-nice orange juice, and one, with a blue label instead of an orange one, of distinctly not-very-nicer cod liver oil, which was good for us: after each daily teaspoonful we were given a big spoonful of ‘Radio Malt’ from a huge dark jar with a red-and-yellow label showing a lattice-work radio mast like the Eiffel tower, surrounded by exciting-looking electric flashes. This too was good for us, but being nice was not free.

One had to wait hours at the doctor’s because in those days they gave every patient as much time as they needed. But they gave you prescriptions which you took to the chemist’s who gave you tablets or bottles of ‘The Mixture’. All free; no question of payment.

Then sweets came off the rations; the last thing to do so. On the first day there were long queues at the sweetshop but we, as children of people moving from the working into the middle class, waited until the next day. Even the dentist was free, and gave you gas so you didn’t feel anything. Mine was free anyway because he happened to be my father.

Then in 1951 was the Festival of Britain: the Skylon, the Dome of Discovery, all sorts of wonderful new inventions suitable for a Brave New World. The Festival Hall, with amazing sound-proofing against the trains, still mostly steam, rattling across from Charing Cross to Waterloo, and heating that worked by extracting low-level heat from the great heatsink of the Thames.

The mood lasted a few more years. Then, quite suddenly, it all collapsed. People, especially the people who held the purse-strings, simply stopped caring about the things that really matter.

What the hell happened? What hideous sickness overtook us?    

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Risks of Posting Poetry on the Blog

I had thought that putting poems in the blog caused people to stop looking at it, but looking again at the graph I think the day of the week has more influence. More people look at weekends. So I shall take a risk: I do want people to see the occasional (or even the frequent) poem, even if it has to be one of my own. So I will try trading the rise in readership at weekends against the general groan caused by a poem. This one was in the ‘Spectator’ back in 1995 or so when they still cared about such things and even had a poetry editor: the excellent (not least because he sometimes accepted one of mine) P.J. Kavanagh. Later it was in my book ‘Foreign Correspondence’:


Gone Fishing.

Time spent fishing doesn’t count
toward our final sum,
but shifts to the eternal, or
as close as we can come.

I do not mean the age between
the casting and the bite;
rather, beside or out of time:
no ‘Early’, ‘Then’, or ‘Late’.

I came home in the evening, found
the village silent, dead:
roots poking through the ruined streets,
roofs fallen, people fled,

All but one old man, who calls
“You must be the boy
I passed this morning on the path.
Good fishing? Any joy?

“Remember how I wished you luck?
But that was long before
the river dried, the harvest failed;
the earthquake, and the war.”

We gather broken beams, and make
a fire, and cook our fish.
He brings wine from his hut. We sit
and stare into the ash.

Simon Darragh.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

I'm after leaving Monaghan

Every time I put a poem on the blog the little graph that shows how many people have looked plummets. But its odd: to know that today's post is a poem, people have to look, and as soon as they do, a 'hit' or whatever it's called is registered. Perhaps there is some truth in my friend Jane's suggestion that some people have installed poem detection software, which at once blocks anything that might tax their intelligence, sensitivity or imagination.

But actually that poem I put here a couple of days ago wasn't really much cop. Here is a better one written a little later. It is however in 'free verse', so might not correspond to some people's idea of what poetry should be like.



I’m After Leaving Monaghan

Your husband comes in, swings his leg over the arm of the chair.
He complains there is no food in the house.
Oh, you’ve made sure of tea-bags —
hundreds and hundreds of tea-bags, in a big green catering box —
sugar, milk in two-litre plastic jugs,
bread-butter-jam —
but no real food.
He seems to think you should have got some in.
I want to protest; he could surely do it himself.
After all, you are lying half-naked, half-in half-out of bed,
and hampered by me, lying half-on half-off the bed,
whereas he is up and fully dressed.
But it is not my place to come between man and wife.
So I say nothing. I let my eyelids fall closed.

Your left breast is crumpled under my arm, nipple half-hidden in a fold of flesh.
I want to release it, move my hand a little, make you more comfortable,
but I fear it might be taken, by you or by him, as a caress.

I think I hear your husband say ‘And what’s up with him?’
and am moved, nearly, to say ‘It is not my place to come between man and wife.’
But I may have misheard, or he might not have been addressing you.
After all, apart from us three, there are two other people in the room,
who just dropped in for tea.

I think I hear you whisper ‘Help me!’
But I may be mistaken; you may be whispering something else,
or you might be addressing someone else, and my eyes are still shut,
and besides, it is not my place to come between man and wife.

My face nests in the soft spun gold
at the crown of your dear, dear head.
Everyone feels at a disadvantage.
It is a tricky situation.

Simon Darragh